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Pulsipher Game Design

This blog contains comments by Dr. Lewis Pulsipher about tabletop games he is designing or has designed in the past, as well as comments on game design (tabletop and video) in general. It repeats his blog at http://pulsiphergamedesign.blogspot.com/

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My experiences as a Kickstarter backer are disappointing

Lewis Pulsipher
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I was telling my wife about one of the Kickstarters I had backed, what seems to be a long time ago, without receiving "the goods", and realized that that's been my experience for many of those I've backed. So I decided to write a brief blog post about my experiences. I'll start with the good ones and work my way downward.


(Note that I have not backed a game; in my very limited experience, pre-ordering games (which is what Kickstarter amounts to) has resulted in me paying more than people who waited. And I'm not the sort of person to get excited by the hype and smoke and mirrors that surrounds so many Kickstarter game offerings. I want to find out what the game is really about before I buy it, and among other things I do not trust pre-reviews, a field open to vast possibilities of "shenanigans.")


In most cases by the time I backed the project it had already exceeded its minimum target.


The most immediate return, and one of only two that have actually delivered so far, was run by Evil Hat Productions, which is one of the stars of the Kickstarter universe as I understand it. It was for a new edition of the book Designers and Dragons, and three new companion books. Since I only "backed" electronic copies which were already more or less done the delivery was very quick. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/evilhat/designers-and-d...


I supported an offer to deliver custom laser etched dice. This one went off without a hitch and I received my dice some time ago. (They're not very practical as dice because many are hard to read, but the college kids think they're cool and prefer to use them when possible.) https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/tinderbox/dice-empire-s...


The next one is much more recent than the others, an offering of fantasy coins. The producers actually had to try three times before they succeeded in funding, and there hasn't been enough time for them to deliver. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/420090979/fantasy-gamin...


I think the first Kickstarter I supported was for "Doublesix Dice", 12 sided dice numbered 1 to 6 twice. This project has run into many production problems (Chinese manufacturer) but the man in charge has spent a great deal of time and is very open about what's happening, providing videos of the production candidates, and I expect that sooner or later the dice will be delivered. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/916188323/doublesix-dic...


Another project I supported is for "GripMats". These are a great idea, but it turned out that only one printer in the United States could handle the job and they tended to ignore the project in favor of other things. At one point the project manager said he had quit his job in order to spend full time nursing this along, and later a foreign printer was found. But there's been no delivery and I have no idea when or if there ever will be. The best we have seen is photographs.

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/bfrgames/gripmat-get-a-...


I supported another custom etched dice project that has hit hard times. The project manager used the money to buy laser etching equipment and reported on his experiences setting up, but then he went silent. Recently he has described in great detail a physical malady that prevents him from doing any work, and he's waiting to get an appointment with a top level specialist. This points up, of course, the problem that so many Kickstarters depend on a single individual. We'll hope he recovers sometime and can deliver. (There is no money to refund because he spent it on the equipment.) https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/customgamelab/custom-ga...



At best you could call this a chequered experience. "It is what it is." But I notice that I haven't backed any new projects in quite a while.


**

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Wed Jun 24, 2015 3:27 pm
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Video (screencast): The Many Meanings of the Word "Theme"

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Text of the slides is below. Keep in mind, there's more to the presentation than this text!

Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
Pulsiphergames.com

Rendered useless . . .
I don’t use the word “theme” any more, because there are so many different meanings
If you cannot know how your reader/listener understands a word, you can’t use it (if you want to be clear)
These meanings are not even close to the same things. Which is why I don’t use the word any more, it’s confusing rather than meaningful
This happens periodically with certain words as the language changes
For example, “bi-annual” is useless
So is “literal”

. . . by too many different meanings
I’m going to these meanings for “theme” and suggest alternatives
Here’s a list of different meanings:
“Theme” as model
“Theme” as a guide to action or “context”
“Theme” as an atmosphere/canvas/decoration
“Theme” as a gloss – or even less
If I’m talking about theme as model, and you’re talking about theme as atmosphere/decoration, we’ll never understand each other

Theme as model
The game is an attempt to model a situation
There’s a strong connection, in what the players do and what happens, between the game and some reality (even if it’s a fictional reality)
I call this “correspondence” (or “analogousness,” but that’s an ugly word, from analogy)
Keep in mind, models always simplify the reality
Most historical wargames fit this meaning of “theme” – how could they not?
Though some conquest games, like Risk, are pretty far removed from any history and any reality – is Risk even a poor model?

Might not be a GOOD model . . .
Keep in mind, the model may not be a good one
For example, World of Tanks, an otherwise fine game, has lots of “nuts and bolts” for war buffs, but the actual play has very little to do with actual warfare
It’s a model, but a poor one
The same can be said about most shooters (WoT is really an arcade third person team shooter)
World of Warships, same thing

Mechanics not lending themselves to models
Some common game mechanics, having next to nothing to do with real life, do not lend themselves to theme as model or even theme as context
For example, worker placement: something almost never found in real life
It may exist, but I’ve not seen a worker placement game that was anything but abstract
Swapping roles from turn to turn is another
Drafting is also rare in real life (outside of American pro sports player drafts)

Video games
Respawning in video games is anti-model, for sure!
It’s far too easy to hit something with a long-range weapon, too
In RTS, the base-building style doesn’t match any real or fictional reality I know
And so forth: in some ways, taken altogether video games are worse models than tabletop

Theme as guide to action or “context,” via a story
The “theme” is a story that provides a context to help players play the game
This requires some resemblance between game and reality, but does not require it to be a model
(Where one ends and the other begins is hard to say)
At some point, this merges into theme as atmosphere/decoration

Theme as atmosphere/canvas/decoration
The “theme” provides an atmosphere, a feeling, for what is largely an abstract game
What the player does has virtually nothing to do with the supposed situation/story
What happens in the game has little to do with the proposed situation/story
“Decoration” might be the clearest word to use, as much of this comes from appearance without substance
If you can take an existing game and change the so-called “theme”, you have this version of theme, or even less

Theme as a gloss – or even less than that
Gloss – something tacked onto a game after it has been designed and tested
While this may be an attempt to provide context, for the most part it’s a marketing ploy
Think about how people buy games in stores
They pick it up and look at the back cover
The back cover tells them a story that may have nothing to do with the game
In fact, the back cover rarely discusses gameplay

With all these meanings . . .
If you use the word “theme” without one of the other words I’ve proposed, you likely confuse the reader/listener
When people talk about games, much of the confusion comes from semantics
Let’s try not to contribute to the confusion
Just Say No to using the word “theme”

No doubt there are other meanings out there, but these seem to be the principle ones

***

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Fri Jun 19, 2015 12:51 am
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The Stages of Playtesting: the Nature of the Testers, or the State of the Game?

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Typically, the stages of game play testing are divided into Alpha and Beta and sometimes other names. But when people use these terms, they often mean quite different things. I’m going to discuss some of the different views of the stages of playtesting, and the “new” stages that can come even after release of a game.

It doesn’t really matter what we call the stages, what matters is what’s happening, and that’s what we’ll focus on.

I have always thought of playtesting in terms of who is doing the playtesting and what their relationship is to the creation of the game. But some people focus on the state of the game rather than who is doing the testing. That’s where much of the confusion arises.

In my book Game Design (McFarland, 2012), I briefly discussed the stages of playtesting:

There are three stages to playtesting: solo playtesting (also called "alpha"), local playtesting ("beta"), and "blind" or “external” playtesting (often spoken of as part of the "beta" stage). While there are various ways to name these stages, the stages certainly exist, although sometimes video game companies leave out the “external” testing stage.

Of course, in single-player video games all testing will be solo for a single player game. I might have said instead of “solo playtesting,” “playtesting by the game developer(s).” The difference between Alpha and Beta is that the Beta testers are not among the developers of the game, so they have a completely different point of view. Developers often have worked with the game so long and so closely that they cannot see it objectively, and they have learned over time to cope with problems or peculiarities in the game that an ordinary player would regard as seriously detrimental.

I emphasized who is doing the testing, because historically video game studios often failed to playtest beyond the game developers themselves, that is, never got to the Beta stage. And their games suffered severely for it. This failure is much, much less common today.

Since I wrote the book I’ve added the third Greek letter, “Gamma,” to represent testing after a game is released. This is especially common in video games where a free-to-play game is often released in an unfinished but functional state so that the developers can discover whether there’s “something in it”. If there isn’t, they stop development and they’ve saved themselves a lot of time and effort (and that equals money). If there is something in it (if enough people enjoy it), they can continue to develop the game and continue to benefit from user feedback, which is after all what playtesting is, user feedback.


In contrast to judging playtesting stages by who is testing, Alan Paull, designer of many published games and lately of games for his co-owned company Surprised Stare, thinks of testing in terms of the state of the game. In the Alpha stage the game is not stable (is changed frequently), whereas in the Beta stage the game is fairly stable.

When judging from the state of the game, at some point the game is regarded as entirely stable, that is, ready to publish. In this context I’m reminded of the Microsoft term “release candidate,” where software is tested, and if no additional problems are found it is released, even though there are still lots of known coding problems in the software. (No large computer application is ever released without lots of bugs, both known and unknown.) In tabletop game terms the nearest equivalent would be a game distributed for testing by a publisher who has committed to publishing the game.

“Blind testing” is quite different in the video game world than in tabletop, because video games are intended to work without requiring the player to read a rules manual, whereas blind testing in tabletop requires the tester to read the rules and learn the game from the rules. It’s really hard to find people who will follow through with a blind tabletop playtest, unless the game is a “release candidate.” In tabletop the presumption is that at the blind testing stage you have a “release candidate.” The other assumption is that the playtesters have had nothing to do with the development of the game.


Recently some terms have been adopted in the video game world that further differentiate (and also confuse) the matter. Alpha and Beta stages can now be “open” or “closed.” Closed means that only certain select/privileged/lucky people are able to participate. For example, World of Warships has gone through an Alpha stage, a closed Beta, and soon an open Beta. In all of those stages virtually all players have had nothing to do with development of the game, so these terms relate to the state of the game - what I would three years ago have called Beta.

On Steam (video game distribution for PCs) we have “Early Access” games where players are already paying for the game even though it is still in playtesting. Playtesters paying to play? That’s a good trick if you can manage it. (World of Warships has achieved it, by selling “Premium” ships that give people access to play in the otherwise-closed Beta.) "Early Access" testing is possible primarily because there is no cost in making another (playtest) copy of a software game.


Furthermore, as publishing and re-publishing becomes easier, “playtesting” becomes part of publication. Video game patches fix programming bugs, but they can also fix gameplay problems. In effect, they’re changes to the game resulting from the “Gamma” testing, testing after publication. Even for some tabletop games this kind of thing can be done. “Living rules” (rules posted online that can be revised) are the result of testing-after-release of a tabletop game. Or imagine you’ve published a Print-on-Demand (POD) game, e.g. through DriveThruCards or theGameCrafter.com. If a problem arises, you can change one or more components so that every subsequent buyer benefits from the testing-after-release. Gamma testing is a reality for many kinds of games.

In any case, the accompanying diagram is an attempt to graphically show what’s happening. As time passes, the game is improved (shown by black line), but improvements come more slowly as the game approaches completion (also shown by the blue rate of improvement line). As the game improves, the testing usually reaches a wider audience (shown by red line). Late in the testing process this audience may contract (tabletop games blind testing), or may expand (video game “release candidate” testing), shown by the two branches of the red line.

As for the names of playtesting stages, I think Gamma (post-release) needs to be recognized, though some might want to use Gamma to designate "release candidate" testing, and Delta for post-release testing. I don’t think we’ll have any agreement about Alpha and Beta, as some people continue to emphasize who is testing, and some emphasize the state of the game.





****
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Mon Jun 8, 2015 6:12 pm
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(Video) Game Patents: A Waste of your Money

Lewis Pulsipher
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Below is the text of the slides. There's more to the presentation, of course, than the slide text.

Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
PulsipherGames.Com
“Game Design” channel on YouTube

I am not a lawyer
But I’ve listened to lawyers discuss game IP quite a few times
And I’ve read a lot
While this isn’t legal advice (and wouldn’t be even if I was a lawyer), I think it’s a good brief summary
If you want legal advice, talk to a lawyer (who’s experienced with game IP!)

A Patent:
Protects a specific expression of an idea
Usually a product
But there are also “design patents” and “method patents” these days, to help the PTO (Patent and Trademark Office) make more money, I think
Must be novel and non-obvious
Limited duration (20 years (or less) in USA, down from 26)
Apply only in one country!
Copyright is respected in most countries through Berne Convention
Patent and trademark apply (and must be applied for) country by country

Novelty
“One important concept that is lost on a lot of lay people is that when you sue to enforce a patent (and I am an IP trial lawyer who defends big companies daily), you are allowed to argue that a patent is obvious by combining two or more other things. . . sort of like combining chocolate with peanut butter.” - Steve Facie
The Patent and Trademark Office has allowed many such obvious patents, but the courts are much more strict
Such as the patent on providing an 800 number for people to call when they’re uncertain about the rules for a game
But even Hasbro didn’t spend the money to challenge it in court

Patent Office is a Big Mess
US Patent and Trademark Office is thoroughly screwed up because it self-funds
The more patents it issues, the more $$$ it makes
Not surprisingly, the PTO “regularly and routinely issues patents [that are] plainly invalid and are found to be such when enforcement is sought.” (Steve Facie, IP lawyer who participates in patent trials)
This is where “patent trolls” come from: buying up ridiculous patents that have nonetheless been issued by the PTO, the trolls try to scare companies into paying royalties on this trash

Patent Costs
Expensive to file ($3-10K according to lawyers)
Plus $565, $1425, $2365 for maintenance fees paid at 3 1/2, 7 1/2, and 11 1/2 years after your patent is granted. These fees maintain your legal protection
Worse, far more expensive than this to defend in court
And about 2/3 of patents are invalidated when they get to court
Successful games are very rarely patented
Games you never heard of, and never will, make up virtually all of the patents
Which anyone can look up online

Cost versus your Revenue
Why spend more money than you’re likely to make on the game?
Very few games (tabletop or video) are patented
The most well-known patent is on Magic: the Gathering, not just on “tapping”
“look and feel” come into it
It has now expired
You can see the latest patents online – virtually all are utterly foolish, such as a new way of betting on BlackJack!
Not novel
Obvious
And Useless!

And it’s not likely to “Stick”
. . . If challenged in court
“. . . roughly TWO THIRDS of all patents asserted in litigation are invalidated (i.e., forever killed) either at trial or on appeal. In other words, the Patent and Trademark Office regularly and routinely issues patents [that are] plainly invalid and are found to be such when enforcement is sought.” IP Lawyer Steve Facie


Patent versus Copyright
Copyright protects the look and artistic presentation, including the actual wording, of a work
Copyright violation is to some extent a criminal matter, patents are purely a civil matter (government does not enforce, no law is broken)
Copyright is supported in most countries via the Berne convention; patents must be filed in every country where you want protection

Lawsuits?
I read much more often of copyright lawsuits than of patent suits
Wizards of the Coast takes on Cryptozoic Entertainment in CCG online lawsuit
Keep in mind, this is based on copyright, the patent has expired
Crytozoic issued a CCG that is just too much like MtG
http://www.examiner.com/article/wizards-of-the-coast-takes-o...
Triple Town video game suit also based on copyright, not patent

Copyright (and trademark) are your friends. Find a game designer who has obtained a patent, and almost always, you’ll find one of those “suckers born every minute.”

******
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Thu May 28, 2015 1:44 am
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Why I Only Play 1e D&D, not other RPGs

Lewis Pulsipher
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I first saw Dungeons & Dragons in 1974. At the time my favorite game was Diplomacy, a seven player cutthroat diceless wargame. I said to myself at the time, “I hate dice games.” But of course it turned out that D&D was not a dice game, rather it was a microcosm of life where you do what you can to reduce the number of times when you have to rely on the dice to save your butt. Smart people do the same thing in life, trying to reduce the number of times when they have to get lucky.

So in 1975 I started playing the game. I settled on Advanced Dungeons & Dragons as my game of choice and that has been true until this year. I have never seen a need to switch to a newer edition because the newer editions had a different zeitgeist that I did not approve of. I did play and even referee third edition and I played fourth edition.

I’ve read lots of RPG rules and seen various games being played, but I never saw a need to change from first edition because I could modify it to suit whatever I needed. I am not a lover of games, I am a lover of particular games, and I tend to stick to those particular games. I have never been susceptible to the “cult of the new.” Why bother to learn new rules and new ways of doing things when I’m fully satisfied with what I’ve got? 1e D&D is a simple game despite the great mass of standard rules when compared with games like Rolemaster, but it provides enough detail to treat the game as a wargame rather than as merely a story (FATE is largely story, for example, though not necessarily a story imposed by the referee/DM).

Typically I set up situations to challenge the players rather than guide them along a particular story; I want the players to write their own story within the context that I provided.

I usually create my own settings, but the one commercial setting I was most interested in is Spelljammer, despite its inconsistencies. I’ve partly devised an alternative set of rules for a Spelljammer-like game, and I have a couple of board games in mind related to the same kind of setting.

Because I’ve been satisfied with D&D, I have only once attempted to design a separate RPG. And that RPG is a very limited set of rules to be used in a boardgame. The idea was to substitute programmed instruction for a referee, but I’ve never got far enough to try doing that because I have great doubts that it can be done reasonably.

On the other hand I’ve written a great many additions to D&D - at one time I was going to write a formal “supplement” (as they were called before AD&D) for Games Workshop that fell through when they lost their distribution rights for D&D in the United Kingdom. Among the additions is a 23,000 word set of D&D Army rules that scales from small groups (a few hundred) two armies of many tens of thousands. I used that a lot in my own campaign, and someday I’ll include it in a book with reprints of some of my many articles from Dungeon and White Dwarf magazines among others. There are unpublished character classes to include as well. So I wrote a lot of RPG stuff but as variants of D&D rather than separate games.

I have been extremely impressed with the professionalism and quality of rules writing and rules creation for the fifth edition of D&D. (Keep in mind, any set of rules running for hundreds of pages will have weak spots.) The ridiculously easy healing rules (a manifestation of 21st century reward-based gaming instead of 20th century consequence-based gaming) ruin the game (for me) as written, but it’s easy enough to remove the Revivify spell and some of the easy healing rules. (For those not yet familiar with the terms, in reward-based gaming, players expect to be rewarded, for participation, just because they're playing the game. Failure is not an option. In the extreme, if they fail they blame the game. In consequence-based gaming, players are expected to earn their rewards, and failure is a real (if uncommon in FRPGs) possibility.?)


But I have to say I have not played fifth edition yet, I’m still working my way through the Monster Manual having read the other two. I tend to feel I ought to spend my time on my own board and card game designs rather than on playing D&D, but that can change.

Some of the excellent additions to the game are advantage and disadvantage, and attunement of magic items. The first is a great simplifier, and the second helps solve the problem of characters with bags of powerful magic items. Even little things like the change so that no one has to keep track over long periods of how many charges there are in a magic item are an indication of the thought put into the game. Of course, the writers had 40 years of role-playing game experience to draw on.

[Revised, from the original post on Blogspot, in light of comments on Google+]

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Sat May 16, 2015 6:33 pm
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Triptych IV: Three different topics in one blog post.

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First, a comment about Reading Versus Listening and Watching. I am not writing much in the blog, these days, as I tend to think in terms of screencasts (videos) because that’s where the education market has gone. The proportion of people willing to read (as opposed to listen) decreases over time. Before I retired from college teaching I saw that students often didn’t even get a copy of the textbook, let alone read it.

A blog such as this one naturally attracts the readers, rather than the listeners. So I’ll try to write more often. I am also working on turning my online courses into books, for those who prefer to read.

“Growing” the Hobby"


If you want to "grow" any game-related hobby, you make the games easier to play (require less thought/action by the participant) and make them more rewarding.

To do the first, you either:
• tell the player what to do (as in many of the original Zynga Facebook games) or
• you make things happen for the player (the player is a passive observer), or
• you make every decision lead to success (that is, no "bad" decisions)

Further (and this is the second), make sure that there's feedback (at the very least) if not functional reward (such as loot) at every juncture/encounter.

Using these methods, people who don't want to make an effort (an attitude that seems to be more and more common in the days of the "Easy Button" - "I can't be bothered"), and people who want the game to be more like a movie, rewarding them rather than requiring them to earn something, will more likely be attracted.

This is what has happened in MMOs and F2P video games. We're seeing some of it in tabletop games, though not as strongly as in video games.

I'm not going to say this broad appeal is bad. But is it what you want as a designer, is that how you want to design "games"? Are hobby games becoming famiily and party games?

How being a game designer changes your perception


Christian Williams was describing Kickstarter in a blog post on LinkedIn recently. Then he talked about the opening video for a KS project. He showed three, including this one, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ciouw-Fk-Jg

Christian said "Wow. Just wow. I watched this video and I wanted to play this game NOW!? "

What did I see, as a game designer? I saw a fairly abstract game with some Euro influence and a little maneuver, more or less a game about collecting things. I saw a video that emphasized story, but games aren't stories, they're games. It hinted at the mechanics used, but emphasized the imagined story.

I saw how the game was constructed, not the story. I only care about the story insofar as it influences the gameplay, the design, and I couldn't learn enough about the design to know, nor to be excited about the design.

I have no interest in playing it. (Though I have to admit, I am not a game lover, I'm a lover of certain games and certain kinds of games, which is quite another thing.)

(Keep in mind, Kickstarters aren't about the game, they're about the product. They're about the dream. You don't really know what the game is like or how it will play, it may not even have been completed.)

Here's how a video game developer described the change in how the developer perceived games:

Quote:
When you consider becoming a developer, you are going to develop a certain type of hypothetical 'developers glasses'. This means you'll be able to recognize the structure of games and how they are constructed. This sounds great at first, but it will soon transform you into an extremely critical judge, and these glasses will make it harder to swap back to your 'consumer glasses'. I won't say you will not enjoy games anymore, but pleasing yourself with what once was your hobby gets harder. -Koen Deetman


Books are like games?


Books are like games in many ways. Almost no game has original mechanics, original settings, themes, etc. But a game can be new as a whole because of the way things are put together. Nor could someone go out on the Web, find descriptions of some mechanics, and throw them together to be as good as a properly-designed game.

Books - fiction or non-fiction - rarely contain a lot that is original, but what is selected for inclusion, how it's arranged, how it's presented, makes a big difference. For example, there are a couple dozen books on game design, but none that resemble my book.

Non-fiction books combine a lot of information that may be available somewhere, may be obscure: the author organizes it and infuses it with his or her understanding to make it something new.

The markets for games and books are behaving similarly, as well. There's an oversupply of both, with the result that more and more games and books are being published each year, and on average each is selling fewer and fewer copies. Hence the notion that you'll get rich designing boardgames becomes yet more ridiculous every year. (It's happening in video games, too, with the average game on the Apple Store making all of $500 (median).)

****
Thanks to the difficulties of working with a Chinese printer for the first time, my adventure game Sea Kings from Worthington Publishing is now delayed until sometime in mid-summer.
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Video (screencast): Games, Puzzles, "Contests"

Lewis Pulsipher
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Here is the text of the slides. Obviously, I say much more in the video.

Games versus Puzzles versus “Contests”

Solutions?
As said early in this course, the big difference in game design is between games with human opposition, and games without – two or more players versus one player (or “one and a half”, person and computer)
Uncertainty and unpredictability
Almost always a part of games with human opposition
Rarely a part of games without human opposition

Pure puzzles have always-correct solutions
There may be more than one, but each one is always correct
There’s always a “perfect move”
And once you’ve solved it, you’ve “beaten the game” and don’t play any more
Pure games never have always-correct solutions to the whole game
Though there may be occasions when there’s just one “best move”
You can play a 4 to 5 hour game 500 times and still enjoy it
When you can “speed run” through a video game, it’s usually because it’s puzzle-like, though it may not be a pure one
When you solve it, you “beat the game”

In a puzzle, the creator provides the challenge through the game
You cannot lose to a puzzle, though you may give up
In a game, the creator arranges ways for human opposition to provide the challenge
But the presence of humans means the “content” is never exhausted
Replayability is the opposite of “I beat the game”
This means there are winners and losers
Co-operative games (all players against the system) are usually puzzles

“Contests”
Parallel competition, competitors cannot directly influence one another’s performance
Many Olympic sports such as diving, traditional speed skating, figure skating, traditional downhill
Any activity that can be measured in some way can be turned into a contest
Typing speed
Throwing distance
Hot-dog eating!

Contests versus races
Parallel competitions can be conducted sequentially (figure skating) or simultaneously (marathons, swimming)
Some races are contests, some aren’t quite
E.g. auto racing, a driver can block another from passing, or (NASCAR) tap his rear end to get him out of the way – not a pure contest
Description of a game as “Multiplayer solitaire” is a reference to a contest.

A Huge Topic . . .
I could talk for an hour about this (draft of 8,000+ words)
In your game design, keep an eye on where the challenges are coming from, how players can affect one another, and on replayability (which pure puzzles entirely lack)

If you read Gamasutra, you might have seen this recently.

This is an excerpt, one of 160+ videos, from "Learning Game Design", a 12-14 hour audiovisual course available online. See pulsiphergames.com
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Screencast (Video) Gameplay Depth versus Variety

Lewis Pulsipher
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This is a two part screencast:





Here is the text of the slides; I say more in the screencasts, of course, than that.

Gameplay Depth versus Variety
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
PulsipherGames.Com

A Difficult Topic
Because everyone seems to mean something different when they say “depth”
And because there are several kinds of depth
My main focus here is on gameplay depth
But we’ll talk about breadth (variety), and about other kinds of depth in games.

Gameplay Depth
A matter of making good choices:
When there are several plausible choices
Only some of them viable (likely to lead to success)
Which viable one is best depends on the situation (there is no always-correct solution)
And which one you choose makes a difference in whether you succeed
Furthermore, in deep games, choices tend to lead to other decisions you may not have been aware of beforehand

A Large Number of Decisions?
NO!
Gameplay depth comes not from the NUMBER of decisions, but from the quality of the choices and their importance to the outcome of the game
If there are too many decisions, ultimately no individual decision really matters
Or if some decisions are much more important, why are the trivial ones still in the game?????

What if you Can’t Lose?
Think about this: if you can’t lose, can it be a deep game by this definition?
If decisions don’t really make a difference, what does it matter?
This is the case with many video games
Even in Rogue-likes, you can get out of the game, copy the save file, then go back
Lack of losing is also in the nature of puzzles, and most single-player video games are puzzles more than games
Yes, you can give up before you solve the puzzle

Transparency
In a transparent game it’s easy to see what the right decisions are
So someone can play once or twice and know most of what he/she needs to know to play as well as just about anyone
You can’t play a deep game a few times (or for a few hours) and then have a good handle on how to win/succeed
You just haven’t seen enough of it
But most (especially tabletop) games these days are designed so that you DO have a good handle, after one play
This avoids frustration/work for the players
But often results in a game that is only played once or thrice

Decisions without Always-Correct Solutions
Games that repeatedly put players "on the horns of a dilemma", decisions that do not have always-correct solutions, are more likely to have gameplay depth.
Resource management games can put you on the horns of a dilemma as there's always more you want to do than your resources allow. But the consequence is quite different than from, say, a wargame
And there’s often a single optimal solution

Depth in Wargames
In a wargame, if you make the wrong decision, it could result in losing a territory, or having a ship sunk, or an army destroyed.
In a RM game, it results in less-than-optimal progress
In RM you're looking for optimal moves, and there usually is a solution.
In wargames, especially multi-sided (more than two) games, there may not be an always-correct solution (almost never is in multi-sided)

Other Kinds of Depth in Games
I’ve been talking about gameplay depth, but there are other kinds of things that people call “deep”
Puzzle depth
Model depth
And even story depth
But these are not about gameplay decisions, they’re about other aspects of the game
Well, puzzle depth is about decisions; but in a never-changing, ultimately predictable, environment

Puzzle Depth
Depth here in the sense of a long sequence of choices leading to ultimate success
Where you must make the right choice
Keep in mind, puzzles have always-correct solutions
Which means always-correct choices
And an essentially static environment
Beyond formal puzzles we have “games” that are solvable, such as chess, checkers, tic-tac-toe

Puzzles
Beyond that we have single-player games that may not involve random elements such as “dice”
When you solve it, you “beat the game”
Any game you can “speed run” in a few minutes is essentially a puzzle with an always-correct solution
Even if there are some random elements
Good games don’t have always-correct solutions (a “dominant strategy” is bad)

Story Depth
Lots of branches to the story, lots of choices that make or break the participant(s)
The old Final Fantasy games have a lot of story, though the gameplay is quite repetitive (and shallow)
So “depth” here is related more to intricacy than to right choices
Face it, in many if not most great stories, the protagonist is very lucky in his choices (and in what happens that he cannot control)


More in Part 2


Model Depth
The question here is, is the game a good model of whatever it is depicting?
Don’t confuse looks (photo-realism) with decisions
Are the decisions you make the same kind of decisions, same kinds of choices, a person could make in that real situation?
Do the things that happen in a game correspond with things that happen in the situation depicted?

The more that decisions, choices and occurrences correspond with the actual situation, the better the “model depth”
So, for example, FPS fail dismally as models
World of Tanks has the trappings of model depth to attract “war buffs”, but what you DO deviates immensely from reality in several vital respects
Same for World of Warships
Which isn’t to say they cannot be fun, they’re just not good models of war in the most important respects

Contrast with Variety
When contemporary gamers talk about “depth” in a game, they often mean variety
They confuse depth and variety because they haven’t played many games with real gameplay depth
There’s a lot of decisions because there’s a lot of variation
But those decisions don’t necessarily matter, both in what you choose and in how it turns out
Moreover, if there are too many decisions, individually they tend to cease to matter, even if there’s a winner and loser
Especially in single-player video games, which can quickly get quite repetitive without sufficient variety, because there’s no human opponent

Variety is Breadth, not Depth
Perhaps they don’t recognize actual depth because they play games where you can respawn and can go back to saves
Variety is providing more things to do, but the decisions and choices don’t change their character, decisions don’t lead to “deeper”, hidden decisions
Instead, some of the parameters of the decisions change
Such as, when you play a spell-caster instead of a hack’n’slasher
You do things differently, but there’s nothing deeper about it
The result is breadth rather than depth
In a loot-fest like Diablo III you don’t even have to stick with your decision, you can change when you like (skill allocations etc.)
Think how much players like customizable characters
But what they choose mostly doesn’t matter to the outcome

Too many decisions:
Too many for the player to keep track of
So many that each one, individually, doesn’t really matter even if there’s a winner and loser
This is one reason for keeping games fairly simple, if you want a deep game rather than a broad game

Ideally . . .
Ideally you have both depth and variety

But some game players don’t want to think hard, to work to find the hidden decisions
For them, variety is quite sufficient
I think this is much less true for strategic wargame players, than for gamers as a whole

Digression: Another Kind of “Depth”?
Audience suggestion that there’s another kind of depth, that requiring highly-developed physical skills
In other words, we might call it Athletic Depth
And it’s only going to apply to games requiring dexterity, eye-hand coordination, etc.
This does also involve making good decisions related to the physical needs of success
It also requires a very high standard of athleticism, so that most people just won’t be able to do some of the harder things
Like the proverbial “200 actions per minute” in Starcraft
It’s more a part of “athleticware” than of “brainware”

Just scratching the Surface
I’ve written more than 6,000 words about depth in games
And I have to revise and extend it!
These videos are 135-140 words per minute . . . 6,000 would be about 45 minutes
But this will have to do for this course
I am planning a separate advanced course just about depth in games


Party games don’t have much depth, but may have breadth. Traditionally, hobby games had depth. Now, they tend to have breadth – variety - or puzzle or story depth, not gameplay depth]
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Video (screencast) 10 “Need to Knows” that Make a (Hobbyist) Game Good

Lewis Pulsipher
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The following is the text of the slides; there is more to the presentation, of course, than just this text.

10 “Need to Knows” that Make a (Hobbyist) Game Good

Dr. Lewis Pulsipher

Pulsiphergames.com

“Game Design” channel on YouTube

Overall considerations
Doesn’t matter whether it’s a video game or tabletop
You can’t say “because it’s fun!” – “fun” depends on the player, there is NO UNIVERSAL FUN
Know your audience (NOT you, unless you’re designing only for yourself, not for publication)
You have to satisfy what they think/feel is “fun”
Playtest with your audience
Keep in mind the three kinds of games/game players:
Math (chess)
People (multi-sided games)
Story (Japanese RPGs)

We can’t specify universal “Good Traits”
Because types of games vary so much
party games, family games, kids’ games, games for adults, “adult” games, single-player games, games for more than one player (or more than two), cooperative games, drinking games, etc.
So here we’re talking primarily about “hobbyist games”, games played by adults for whom game-playing is a hobby
Even within hobby games:
some people “hate dice” (chance), some people like them; some people dislike “long” games (however long that is), some people prefer them; some people want to challenged, some just want to relax; etc.
K.I.S.S.?
If it’s a 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-Exup'ery
If it’s actually a puzzle: complexity may help make the puzzle harder and the “game” last longer before it’s solved
Most single-player “games” are mostly or entirely puzzles
“Multiplayer solitaire” is a puzzle

The List
Interaction (with players, with the game)
Interesting, non-trivial choices
Replayability
Memorability
Player control
Balance (fairness)
Customization
Easy-to-use interface
Asymmetry
Hook/early play

And we have an 11th that isn’t something to make games good, it’s something to make games more marketable: visual appeal

Interaction (with players, with the game)
Two major types of interaction
With the game (the environment, the system – PvE)
With people (which, obviously, requires at least two players - PvP)
Single-player games/puzzles have virtually no people interaction
And several flavors of people interaction
Targeted (hinder or help specifically and immediately)
Or Anticipatory (blocking)
Direct (player-to-player)
Or Indirect (temporarily controlled intermediating entities involved)
(I will do a separate screencast about interaction…)

Interesting, non-trivial choices
Sid Meier’s (Civilization, Pirates) definition – a series of interesting, non-trivial choices (or challenges)
As for trivial:
Chutes & Ladders, Candyland, LCR (Left Center Right), have no choices at all
For children or for (slightly drunk) partiers
But they’re not “hobby games”, either
And “solved” games have no choice in practice, such as Tic-tac-toe

Replayability
Avoiding “sameness” in a game, providing new experiences
Phases provide replayability, of a sort, within a single game
See my blog post, http://gamasutra.com/blogs/LewisPulsipher/20120624/172937/Ph... (Sorry I can’t make that clickable)
Or my screencast about level/adventure pacing on my Game Design YouTube channel
Replayability can come from depth (nature and quality of decisions), or from sheer variety, or both
Designer can include variable setups (such as Settlers of Catan’s hex tile board layouts), additional scenarios, characters, other asymmetric aspects

Memorability
The events in the game are so striking that players discuss them after (and long after) the game is done
“Water-cooler moments” or “the anecdote factory”
How do you make a game memorable?
It’s harder to do with an abstract game (even one with an “atmosphere”)
When events can be related to some reality, they’re easier to remember
Variety, whether from lots of options or from depth of options, can throw up memorable moments
Games where players “write their own story” (emergent, sandbox)
And a game where the story is imposed on the players is memorable (but that quickly wears out, it’s kind of a one-shot) (progressive, linear)

Player Control (?)
Hobby gamers like to feel that they have some control over what happens to them
Especially the really “serious” players
On the other hand, some players, especially casual, are happy to go along with a story (I call it, “being led around by the nose” – I like control)
So one person’s feast is another person’s famine

Balance (Fairness)
Fairness is important in the West, not so much in East Asia
Appropriate reward for effort & skill (single-player)
An equal chance to win (more than one player)
Balance of power of character classes (in “experience” games)
No advantage in going first (or last) in turn-based games
Chess is very unfair (white wins far more than black), but tournaments are organized to account for this

Customization
Ways for a player to modify the game as they like
Especially in character creation
Or as in Risk Legacy, where customization is available (and, MOST unnecessarily, destructive)
Games that lend themselves to variants, such as Diplomacy
Level editors in video games
Relatively easy modding in video games

Easy-to-use interface
All games have interfaces – ways to manipulate and command the game, and to find out what happens
Board and card games have been around so long, interface tends to be standardized
A poor interface can ruin the experience of playing a game, especially a video game
Moreover, Interface is one of the parts of a game where non-standard methods should be avoided
They throw players off their game

Asymmetry
Symmetric – everything/everyone starts the same
Asymmetric is the opposite – typical in two-player historical wargames
Asymmetric presents more problems and more opportunities – built in replayability
But it’s much harder to balance (my bane: Britannia)

Hook/early play (21st Century)
In days of Instant Gratification, you have to grab a player early in a game, or they might quit
Really, before he or she plays the game (this is where miniatures make a big impact – the “toy factor”)
A strong hook is also important for marketing in days when there are thousands of games published, instead of dozens
“Discoverabilty” is a big problem

“What happened to Story?”
All games have narratives (an account of what happened), but thousands have no formal story (something constructed to entertain, with plot, characters, conflict, climax, resolution, etc.)
Historical games are more or less in between
Some players aren’t interested in games without formal stories – but most players don’t require them
I have to say, many video game designers appear to be frustrated fiction writers
See/hear “Are you a game designer or a fiction writer” on my Game Design YouTube channel

Marketing (Modern): Visual Appeal
Many modern games depend heavily on visual appeal
Take a game as simple as (and as solved as) Tic-tac-toe and make it look really good, and some will buy it
Battleship is an example, a traditional graph-paper game made to look much better (and 3D) at great cost
People who don’t even play chess will buy fancy chess sets
Miniature figures sell lots of not-very-good games – the “toy factor” is powerful
Fun?
A graphic about the variability
of fun
From Rob Donoghue
on Google+

Made with RPGs in mind, I
think, but applies generally.
Lots of possible axes, not just
Challenge and Story

More details in . . .
All of these issues are discussed at much greater length in my book-length audiovisual course, “Learning Game Design, as a job or a hobby”. See PulsipherGames.Com for information (and a discount).]
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Video (screencast): 7 ways to learn game design

Lewis Pulsipher
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This is primarily for beginners, not for experienced pros, of course.



Here is the text of the slides. The video includes much more than this text, of course.

7 Ways to Learn Game Design
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
Pulsiphergames.com
“Game Design” channel on YouTube

It’s not Game Production
Game design isn’t about programming or art or sound
It’s about specifying how the game works, how it plays, which has to be enjoyable for players in your target market
Video games are software, but nothing in game design requires software
See “10 ‘Need to Knows’ about Game Design” on my Game Design YouTube channel (http://www.youtube.com/user/LewGameDesign )

Preliminary Considerations
You won’t be good at it, when you start out
Just as with most anything else that’s complicated
Just as with most big games you might play!
If you think it’s simple, you’ve got a big problem to overcome
What makes you a good game player, isn’t what makes you a good game designer
So forget about your gaming prowess
It’s not about “getting ideas”, it’s about execution

It’s a list, but not either/or – do several at once
Start with tabletop games
Start with Gamemaker
Start with the combination of Unity and Playmaker
Make small modifications to existing games
Read - a lot (and listen)
Take online classes
Earn a degree

Start with Tabletop Design
You don’t need programming skills to make tabletop games – you do need such skills (which have nothing to do with game DESIGN) to make software
You can’t “hide behind the computer” in tabletop
You can make quick changes and see how gameplay changes
Much harder to do with software games

I discuss this at greater length in my “Learning Game Design” online course

Start with Gamemaker: Studio
Originally created for learning (on PCs), but there are some commercial games made using this engine
Free version (though there’s a “pro” as well): https://www.yoyogames.com/studio/download

Drag and drop interface, no coding required
But it has coding built in
Excellent tutorial books available

Start with Unity and Playmaker
This is a favorite combination of university instructors
Unity is a professional, but inexpensive (free just for learning) development system
Used now by many developers for commercial games
Can be converted to many platforms

Make Small Modifications to Existing Games
For video games, this would be levels, using a level editor included in the game
More extensive modding requires extensive programming skills
For tabletop, make variants of well-known games such as Risk, Settlers of Catan, Diplomacy, even chess

Read - a Lot - and Listen, Too
Read about game design
Books, magazines, blogs
But also, read about how the world works, good history, good economics, good literature, etc.
Challenge yourself in your reading
Listen to podcasts, watch videos
Take online classes
But lots of classes with “game design” in the title are actually about game development, especially programming

In fact, aside from my own classes, there are just one or two MOOCs that are very basic

I recommend my own classes (of course!)

Take a degree in games
Be very careful
Lots of private, for-profit schools take advantage of student dreams
Many “colleges” are not regionally-accredited colleges, so the degree generally doesn’t count as a real degree
National accreditation, oddly enough, doesn’t count
Many “game degrees”, even when called game design, teach almost no game design, or the instructors have no clue
Often because the degree is offered to provide students for programming instructors to teach
Even not-for-profit degrees are very expensive (exception: community colleges)

In the end, you must Complete games
There is no substitute for completing games
Who cares about half-completed (half-baked?) games?
No one who counts in game development
You have to show you can do it if you want to be hired
Intention counts for little, it’s ACTION that counts
You have to submit a complete game to a publisher, not something partly finished, certainly not just an idea
More detail?

I discuss this topic at greater length in my online courses “Brief Introduction to Game Design” and “Learning Game Design, as a job or a hobby”
More info (and discount URLs (coupons)) at PulsipherGames.Com
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