Lewis Pulsipher(lewpuls)United States
(From the external blog, March 9
I bought two items at the PrezCon auction store. Those who know me will be unsurprised to learn that they were the same item, because I was buying for pieces, not for a game to play. On my second walk-through of the auction store (later in the afternoon when the prices were sometimes cheaper) there were two copies of Exalted: War for the Throne. I could not place the game in my mind, so I supposed it was one of those self published games that one sometimes sees at small booths at conventions. Someone designs a game, which often appears to be like Risk (conquer the world), often with lots of plastic pieces that they've had made in China, and they go to a convention to publicize the game. You almost never see them back the next year because they found that the trip and booth cost them more money than it was worth. But when I later looked the game up via the Internet I discovered that it's a game published by well-known RPG company White Wolf, tying into their world setting. That helps explain how they could put so many plastic pieces into the game and not lose an arm and a leg, by using a large print run (and only three molds). But this $70 list game was being offered brand-new for $20.
When I saw that it included plastic ships that look like Viking ships I decided to buy one copy, then went back to the room and opened it up and check things out, and then went back and bought the second copy.
The game includes 30x5 ships, which on closer examination are galleys, 75x5 medieval spearmen, and 50 “manses”, which look rather pagoda-like. Along with that are 75 cards, 120 small glass beads, over 100 large cardboard “coins”, five very heavy cardboard information plaques for the five aspects of magic, and a few other bits, as well as 10 rather elaborate 10 sided dice. The plastic is fairly hard and very detailed: I decided the ships were galleys rather than Viking ships when I saw the eye bulges on the bow and the rowing superstructure along each side that characterize galleys but not drakkars. And there’s the mounted (but warped) board, which is rather small and plain and cursed with “four-color mapism”. That is, each dominion is colored separately like a typical political map of nations or states, which looks absolutely unrealistic if not garish on a game map. The only other board I can think of that does this is China: the Middle Kingdom, and it looks similarly unsuitable and unedifying.
So buying these for $20 each for parts, especially the ships, is a pretty good deal for a game designer. But this made me think about the materialist inclinations of game buyers. If I were buying this as a game, the fact that it has lots of plastic pieces would be relatively unimportant. I want a game that's good to play, over and over again. But in contemporary terms, many people don’t seem to expect to play a game more than a few times, so they’re not as worried about whether they are getting a really good game and more worried about whether they’re getting “their money’s worth” for the parts. This in itself is ridiculous because most people are not game designers and are not going to reuse the parts. But that seems to be the way many people think and talk.
It reminds me of the novice game designers who put lots of time and money into the looks of their prototypes. Manufacturers are much more interested in whether it’s a good game than in how the prototype looks. And designers should make simple prototypes, and spend their time on making the game better. But even here things are changing, because it’s harder and harder to get people to playtest a game unless it looks good. I spend more time on the looks of a game by far than I used to, but fortunately thanks to computers and having thousands of pieces like the ones I got from Exalted: War for the Throne, it doesn’t take me more time to make prototypes that it used to take.
I did read the comments about the game on Boardgamegeek, and read/skimmed the rules. An awful lot of the game seems to amount to spending magical essence to get additional dice rolls. It seems to be a Risk-like game, but better than Risk, or at least it would have been if it had been thoroughly play tested which may not be the case. But I confess that the first thing I did with the rulebook is look at the list of playtesters and see that there weren't many. That may not mean much or it may mean that the testing was insufficiently broad, and so some very effective strategies were not tried or certain situations were not played much.
But for people spending the $70 list price (about $45 online, compare with something like $30 or less for Risk), it’s really important to have lots of nice components. I suspect the game really has appeal only to people who play the role playing games in the Exalted world setting.
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/
19 Apr 2011
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18 Apr 2011
(From March 8 of this year)
Once again I attended PrezCon in Charlottesville, VA, at the end of February. Organizer Justin Thompson says "600 players attended PrezCon 2011 which is a record! We ran 90 boardgames [tournaments] which was a record! Dominion had 84 players which is a non [-standard deck] card game record! We had our 1st Auction store in which we sold over 600 items." As usual PrezCon took place in the last full weekend of February, beginning with pre-cons on Monday and really getting started Wednesday or Thursday.
PrezCon appears to run like a well-oiled ship, you get exactly what you expect if you've been there in past years. It is a smaller version of WBC, heavily tournament oriented with some vendors/manufacturers, an auction, and auction store, and some open gaming. There are no miniatures, no RPGs, no collectible card games: just boardgames and specialized card games. The majority of attendees appear to be over 40 (especially if we don't count their teenage children who are often along). Some people I know don't come to PrezCon because they don't want to compete with the "sharks". Mayfair, ZMan, and GMT were among the vendors.
Most cons don't run tournaments, it seems. WBC and PrezCon, because they are meant to be tournament cons, are the exception. GenCon runs a few big ones, sponsored by manufacturers in many cases (thus leaving me/Brit out). Origins is about individual games, not tournaments.
The PrezCon organizers are running a new convention they have dubbed "National Eurogame Championships" on Memorial Day weekend in the District of Columbia. When I saw "Eurogame" I turned right off, and in any case I have other plans for that weekend. (I am atypical because I go to conventions to talk to publishers not play games.) I'm told there will be more than Eurogames played. There's more potential for a Memorial Day convention than for one at the end of February, but they need a broader title.
- [+] Dice rolls
09 Apr 2011
Every game has an essence, what makes it the game it is, what comes to mind when people think about it, what people are doing (or contending with) when they play. The essence characterizes the game, and can be quite brief. For example Diplomacy is about negotiation and simultaneous tactical movement. Chess is about positional play with perfect information, and about looking ahead several moves. Monopoly (a poor game) is about collecting sets (of properties), managing funds, and random movement. Video game shooters are about killing and blowing stuff up. Some games aren't quite as "pure", of course.
Recently I've been trying to formally write the "essence" of some of my game designs to try to help me see what I should concentrate on, and what I might improve. It's another way to focusing the designer's attention on various aspects of the game: the more (different) ways you can look at a design, the more opportunities you have to find ways to improve it. I want the essence to be long enough that it will tell a person who hasn't played the game something about it. The very brief characterizations I used above aren't very informative for someone who hasn't at least seen the game being played.
So I began by making a list of what ought to be included in the essence statement:
• Tag line (characterizes the game and provides a hook at the same time-the hook is the more important part)
• What is the game obviously related to? (what is it about?)
• What does the player DO?
• How does the game work? (This may not be vital to the essence but most gamers want to know something about how the game works.)
• What is the "affect" (the emotional impact, sometimes called the "aesthetics") on the player? (As emotional impact varies so much from one person to another, I tend to leave this out for games that haven't been played widely, that is, haven't been published.)
• Including time of play is probably necessary these days, when so many people won't play games that take more than an hour, or two hours, or whatever.
• Perhaps a second tag-like line to end it, as playing time is an anticlimactic ending.
While first impressions when playing a game are becoming more and more important, and I try to make notes about what happens in the first 10 minutes and how long teaching and the setup takes, these are more marketing notes than part of the essence of the game.
So let's take Britannia as an example. There have been two tag lines, so I'll include one at the start and one at the end. Notice that the first one, from 1986, talks about what happens, while the second one from 2006 talks about the player's role. The first one is addressed to wargamers, who are interested in the event and in history; the second is addressed to contemporary game players, who are more interested in the feeling of "being there," of what part they play. Both are quite active statements. (And I wrote neither of them.)
"On an anvil of blood and terror they forged the destiny of an island!" In this epic wargame four players each control several nations playing at different times with different objectives throughout the Dark Ages history of Great Britain. Romans, Britons and Gaels, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Normans --they all play a part in this history. Combat is resolved with dice. This is a strategic game of achieving objectives, not of conquest, though many invaders conquer much of Britain at different times. 4 to 5 hours for experienced players. "Invade Britain. Rewrite history. Rule."
I'm not sure that's a very good description of essence, but I'm perhaps too close to the game to judge. Nor am I a good promoter of my own games, so someone else might be able to come up with better.
Here are some other examples, the first three are unfinished prototypes:
AAARRRRRHH! (the Pirate game)
"Fortune sits on the shoulder of him what schemes." Two to seven players are pirate leaders capturing ships on the Spanish Main. Begin with a pirate cutter, recruit more crew, avoid the hunting warships, add ships to your fleet, interfere with your rivals, capture a town or Spanish silver fleet if you're lucky, and accumulate the most Loot to win. The game uses hands of specialized cards (110), and dice. A "screwage" game something like Bang! or Nuclear War but without player elimination. 1 to 2 hours depending on players. "Beware the Black Spot!"
The Rise and Fall of Assyria: the History of the Ancient Near East
"2,000 years of early history in two to three hours". Two to five players control ancient empires as they rise and fall, including the dour, hated, ultimately doomed Empire of Assyria. There are no chance elements in the game other than the choices of the players. This sweep of history game is much less restrictive than Britannia (though there is a four player Britannia-like version) but much more historical than History of the World. 2 to 3 hours. "Pay tribute or die!"
"Run for your lives!" The Zombie Apocalypse is here, with each of 2-7 players representing a small group of survivors. The last survivor "wins". The game uses hands of specialized cards (110), and dice. Players often play zombies against other survivors. A "screwage" game something like Bang! but without player elimination (when you "die" you become zombies!). An hour or more depending on number of players. "Send those zombies down!"
Law & Chaos
"Manage the chaos to win the game." While this abstract game can be played by 2 to 4, it is that most unusual game, one that is perfect for three players. You try to establish a pattern with your pieces on a small board, and you can capture opposing pieces, but capture methods and victory conditions vary for each player and can be changed by other players, using cards. You try to anticipate what other players are doing while disguising your own intentions. The game takes as little as 15 minutes with inexperienced players but sometimes one hour and up with experienced players. "A simple game that requires full attention."
This game is under contract to be published by Mayfair.
"The dragons are coming!" This two player wargame depicts an assault on a city or ork lair by dragons or other mythical creatures. The attacker must destroy a large portion of the city or lair before reinforcements arrive. Many scenarios and a scenario-builder are included. 90-120 minutes. Two sided mounted hex board, individually die-cut cardboard pieces. "Here there be giants."
This game was recently published in its second edition by Flatlined Games. BGG entry http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/3110/dragon-rage. Web site http://www.flatlinedgames.com/
To return to the point: if you as designer write the essence of your game early in your process, and revise it as you go along, this will help you focus on what's important, or what must be fixed. Remember, "A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."
Posted By Lewis to Pulsipher Boardgame Design at 4/07/2011 02:19:00 PM
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06 Apr 2011
Comments on the previous post prompted me to go back to my 9 May 09 post:
The original version of this appeared on GameCareerGuide. (Diagram and some formatting missing here...)
Why We Play Games
At some point designers should know why people like to play games. Yet if anyone truly knew this, he or she would become rich as a consultant.
No one can exactly describe why people like to play games, though many have tried. If an author can spend 80 pages just trying to define what a game is (Rules of Play), how likely are we to define why games are enjoyable? Entire books have been written about this subject -- in this article, I summarize the less philosophical reasons people have suggested, and add some from my own experience.
Game designers make their best judgments about why people like to play, and then design accordingly. Yet there are many examples of software entertainment that surprise most experts. Why is The Sims so enjoyable for so many people, or Katamari Damacy? In the end, a simple answer to this question is “What matters is what happens when a large and diverse set of people play test your game.”
No matter what you think about enjoyment of games, no matter whether you enjoy your game, the play test reflects the reaction of a wide variety of players. If enough of them like it, you probably have something worthwhile. If not enough of them like it, you need to change it.
Unfortunately, in the video game world it costs so much time and money to get to the point of playing the game that we really need all the help we can get while doing the preliminary design. A practical discussion of why people enjoy playing games is therefore a worthwhile endeavor.
Notice I haven’t used the word “fun” -- that’s because many people who enjoy playing games would not call them fun. Take chess as an example. It can be interesting, even fascinating, but many chess players do not describe it as fun.
“Fun” usually comes from external factors, from the attitudes of the people you play with and the environment, not from the game itself. People can laugh and shout and have a good time when playing an epic board game, even though most wouldn’t describe the game itself as fun.
There are certainly games meant to be “funny,” but not every gamer enjoys playing a funny game. Some think they’re silly and boring.
What is Enjoyable?
Some authors have made lists of the kinds of enjoyment people can have while playing games. Such lists are useful to remind us of the details of enjoyable gaming.
The most well known is from Marc LeBlanc (source 8kindsoffun.com)
Sensation Game as sense-pleasure
Fantasy Game as make-believe
Narrative Game as unfolding story
Challenge Game as obstacle course
Fellowship Game as social framework
Discovery Game as uncharted territory
Expression Game as soap box
Submission Game as mindless pastime
At Origins Game Fair 2008, Ian Schreiber (co-author of Challenges for Game Designers) gave his version of kinds of fun (enjoyment):
• social experience
• collection (collecting things)
• physical sensation
• puzzle solving
Ask a group of game players to list ways that people enjoy games, and many of the above will come up in one form or another.
Raph Koster (Theory of Fun in Games) has brought to our attention research by Mihaly Csikszentmikalyi into “optimal experience.” The Chicago-based Czech researcher applies his ideas to life as a whole, in a series of books, but we can apply them to games. Csikszentmikalyi is interested in “the positive aspects of human experience -- joy, creativity, the process of total involvement with life I call flow” (Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990), p. xi).
For game purposes it amounts to this: People have an optimal experience when they are challenged, but not challenged too much. In other words, if something is too easy, it becomes boring. If it’s too hard, it becomes frustrating and causes anxiety. The ideal game experience, then, is to challenge the player at whatever ability level he has reached, that is, keep increasing the challenges as the player becomes a better player. This keeps players “in the flow” (see the diagram).
Video games can be particularly good at managing the level of challenge, either through adaptive programming, via the difficulty setting, or through increasingly difficult levels in games that use levels. In non-electronic games, the level of challenge tends to change because your opponents tend to become better players just as you do, or you find better players to play against. In a non-electronic role-playing game such as Dungeons & Dragons, the referee (Dungeon Master) manages the challenge. Novice characters don’t meet fire giants but often encounter orcs, while very powerful characters may occasionally go up against an ancient and terrible dragon, but orcs aren’t worth bothering with. This is in some sense artificial, but it makes the game more enjoyable.
Enjoyable to Some, Yet Not to Others
While these schemes and categories are all useful ways to think about games, I think game enjoyment often involves spectra of factors, with some people at one end, others at the other end, and the majority somewhere in the middle. Many of these spectra overlap, or are different views of what may be a more fundamental factor.
Here’s a list of some of the factors (certainly not definitive) that I’ll discuss:
• role-fulfillment vs. emergence (story dominant vs. rules dominant)
• story/narrative vs. what happens next/emerging circumstances
• classical vs. romantic
• long-term planning vs. reaction/adaptation to changing circumstances
• socializing vs. competition
• entertainment vs. challenge
• fantasy/relaxation vs. urge to excel (“gaming mastery”)
• the journey vs. the destination
Role-Fulfillment vs. Emergence (Story Dominant vs. Rules Dominant)
Many people have suggested that video games are dream fulfillment: What is the player’s dream that the game designer wants to help them experience or fulfill? Yet in many games the dream, if it is there at all, is quite obscure. What is the dream fulfillment in playing chess or checkers, or any other abstract game, such as Tetris? Is there anything personal (other than a desire for immortality?) in controlling a nation for a thousand years, as in History of the World, Age of Empires, or Civilization?
Certainly many video games put the player into a position the individual is unlikely to experience in the real world, or which they wouldn’t want to experience because it’s much too dangerous. Living out fantasy is an obvious part of shooters and action games, for example.
This kind of game can also be called “story-dominant.” If there’s a dream to be fulfilled, it likely involves a story, and the game is an expression of that story, however simple (just as dreams can be simple or complex).
The other end of this spectrum is the “rules-dominant” game, which includes many traditional games such as chess and go. Gameplay emerges out of the rules, not from following a story (hence, it is sometimes called “emergent” gaming). The game has a set of rules, and the course of the game emerges from the rules in a great variety of ways, depending on the players. Board games and card games tend to be rules-dominant, while many of popular video game genres -- and role-playing games of all types -- tend to be more story-dominant.
We might further say that the rules-dominant games are often for more than two sides, whereas the role-dominant ones tend to have just two sides, the player(s) and the computer (or referee, in Dungeons & Dragons and similar games).
Video games, especially the AAA variety, are much more exercises in role-assumption than non-electronic games. The player is enabled to do something he'd like to imagine he could do, but he can feel as if he's really doing it in modern AAA games. The feeling of verisimilitude must be there. On the other hand, "casual" video games tend to be more rules-dominant, like board games and card games.
Sid Meier recently described what amounts to an "emergent" view of games:
"It's important that the player has the fun in the game," [Meier] said, noting that there is a temptation for the designer to steer the gameplay too much. "It's definitely our philosophy to keep the game designer in the background and let the story emerge from players' decisions."
The next question discusses other aspects of these two contrasting approaches.
Story vs. Emerging Circumstances
Some game players like to follow a story, while others hate to be led around by the nose. Yet they’re talking about the same experience. This is usually expressed in the contrast of “linear” games with “sandbox” games.
It is much easier to produce a powerful story through linearity (as in a book or movie), so the strongest (in terms of story, at any rate) of the story-dominant games are linear.
Sandbox games have greater replay value than linear games (other things being equal) because there is only one or a few stories in the latter. Of course, if the linear game is very long, will people miss a lack of replayability?
Sandbox video games such as Grand Theft Auto and Assassin’s Creed are a return to the older video game style, where specific narrative (linearity) is less important or non-existent.
The role-assumption game isn't necessarily strongly linear or story-dominant. The ancestor of many video games, Dungeons & Dragons (paper version), can be played either way. The dungeon master can conceive a story and set up an adventure so that players are forced to follow through the story (linear method). Or he can set up an appropriately challenging situation, not trying to predict how the players will approach it and not trying to lead them from a particular point to another, and see what happens (sandbox method). In this case the players make their own story. And each group confronted with the same adventure will contrive a different story. It’s easier to do the sandbox in a paper game than in a video game, because a good human referee is more capable than a computer of adjusting the game as it is played.
I always hated storytelling D&D as a player, because it meant the referee forced me to do things I didn’t want to do. But other people much prefer the story-driven style. Of course, there is story in the emergent style, and there is strategy and tactics in the story style. I’m talking about what’s dominant.
What seems to be certain, however, is that many players lean strongly to one side or the other, and don’t like games of the other type most of the time.
Classical vs. Romantic
Two basic game playing styles exist among those who are interested in winning a game (not all players are, of course). Harkening back to the well-known 19th century distinction in music, painting, and other arts, I call the two basic styles the classical and the romantic.
The perfect classical player tries to know each game inside-out. He wants to learn the best counter to every move an opponent (or the computer) might make. He takes nothing for granted, paying attention to details that probably won’t matter but which in certain cases could be important. The classical player does not avoid taking chances, but carefully calculates the consequences of his risks. He dislikes unnecessary risks. He prefers a slow but steady certain win to a quick but only probable win. He tries not to be overcautious, however, for fear of becoming predictable. He tries to maximize his minimum gain each turn -- as the perfect player of mathematical game theory is expected to do -- rather than make moves and attacks that could gain a lot but which might leave him worse off than when he started.
Some people call this the “minimax” style of play. I am not sure that “minimaxer” and “classical” mean quite the same thing in game contexts, but they are close. Certainly, the minimaxers are usually going to be classical types.
A cliché among football fans is that the best teams win by making fewer mistakes, letting the other team beat itself. So it is with the classical gamer, who concentrates on eliminating errors rather than discovering brilliant coups.
The romantic, on the other hand, looks for the decisive blow that will cripple his enemy, psychologically if not physically on the playing field. He wishes to convince his opponent of the inevitability of defeat; in some cases a player with a still tenable position will resign the game to his romantic opponent when he has been beaten psychologically. The romantic is willing to take a risk in order to disrupt enemy plans and throw the game into a line of play his opponent is unfamiliar with. He looks for opportunities for a big gain, rather than maximizing his minimum gain. He loves the brilliant coup, despite the risks.
Chess lends itself to classical play, poker to romantic play. But each one can be played with the opposite style.
Because so many video games let you save your position and experiment with different strategies, the romantic style may be more common among video gamers.
(Much of this section is excerpted from the much longer article “The Classical and Romantic Game Playing Styles,” originally published in Dragon Magazine #65, September 1982. A recent version is online .)
Long-Term Planning vs. Adaptation to Changing Circumstances
Some people like to plan well ahead, to consider the options and choose a best course for each. Others like to react to circumstances as they occur, to adapt. Chess and checkers encourage long-term planning. Monopoly, thanks to the random move mechanic and more than two players, is more adaptive. Having more than two players introduces additional uncertainty to any game; uncertainty is at the heart of the adaptive style. Poker involves adaptation in each hand, but in the long run, the best players may be able to plan their bluffs (and non-bluffs) so as to take advantage of the characteristics and personalities of the other players. Card driven war games put an emphasis on adaptation: you can only do what your current hand allows you to do, you never know what cards you’ll get, and you don’t know what cards your opponent holds.
In general, perfect information games encourage planning, while as uncertainty increases, adaptation becomes more important than planning. For a variety of reasons, adaptation is probably the more common preference among video gamers.
Socializing vs. Competition
Party gamers are the epitome of the socializers. Many Euro-style board gamers and casual video gamers are of this type, to the point that they refuse to attack someone even when playing in a competitive game. They play games to enjoy being with and interacting with other people of similar interest, and have little interest in dominating or beating someone. I don’t think we need to discuss the competitive gamer much. We all know people whose main gaming objective is to win, to outdo everyone else.
The availability of a social experience is important. Non-electronic board games and card games are generally social experiences; electronic games are becoming more social (MMOs, Wii), but are still predominantly solitary, a player alone with his own thoughts and dreams.
Non-electronic RPGs are often social, as the games are usually cooperative rather than competitive.
Entertainment vs. Challenge
Traditional thinking about games sees them as competitions or challenges, where players play against one another. Dungeons & Dragons changed that, as players played against “the bad guys” with the Dungeon Master as neutral referee. It is a cooperative game, though there is still an unending series of challenges.
Some video games have gone further by leaving competition entirely out of it and reducing challenges. Games have become entertainments, not competitions. (Of course, many family games were played as entertainments even though they were ostensibly competitions.) Many people pay their 60 bucks (or 20 bucks, or 5 bucks) and want to be entertained, not challenged. Yet there are still competitive players and highly competitive games. Spore is reportedly "too easy" for hardcore players, yet challenging enough for the much larger market of more casual players. Evidently it is an entertainment rather than a challenging, competitive game.
In a sense, any game can be played as an entertainment or as a competition, but design will make some much more suitable as one than the other. Insofar as people often "don't want to think" when playing games, many video games substitute "physical challenges" (such as jumping in platformers, or shooting accurately) for mental challenges. The physical challenges can easily be modified to entertain or to challenge, as the player wishes.
Playing against people online tends to be challenging. Playing against people in person tends to be entertainment, perhaps because we’re more likely to know the other people involved.
Some writers on this topic speculate that socializing and entertainment tend to be more important to female players, whereas challenge and competition are more important to males.
Relaxation vs. Mastery
A variation of the above is to play a game as fantasy fulfillment, or to play the game to fulfill the urge to excel, to demonstrate gaming mastery. The latter helps the player feel important, capable, powerful, hence its great attraction to teenagers. A game can often provide both, if only through different difficulty levels.
Unfortunately, the urge for gaming mastery, when taken to extremes, results in players willing to cheat or behave in unsocial ways that can ruin everyone else's enjoyment.
Some people just don't see the point of excelling in a video game. What does it matter? A player's attitude can change over time, likely moving more toward relaxation as the player becomes older and encounters more real-world challenges and responsibilities. Mastering a game simply becomes less important.
The Journey vs. The Destination
Older generations want to enjoy the entire game they are playing, even when their main objective is to win. Young people seem to be more interested in the destination, “beating the game,” than in the journey. Obviously, it’s necessary that a game have a sufficient level of challenge that the “destination” player feels he’s accomplished something.
This can also be seen as “what happens” versus “what is the end.” Some people play games (and read novels, and watch movies) to find out what happens next. Others are only interested in the final result. They might skip ahead in a novel and just read the end, or skip ahead in a game (often with "cheats") and just play the end.
I once listened to a young man who had written two books about generational differences say that his generation (gen Y or millennials) were quite happy to get a cheat code, go to the last stage of a game, “win” the game, and be satisfied. “I beat the game, didn’t I?” I, a baby boomer, was astounded. “Why play if you’re going to cheat?” He smiled as he said, “We’re just gathering the fruits of our research.” I shook my head. To this day I cannot understand this emotionally, but I understand intellectually that many game players feel this way -- that the destination is all that matters. And a game designer must be aware of it.
The following is another observation of this phenomenon:
“The fact that there's no ending [100 levels repeat randomly], however, points out a very important difference between Atari's view on video games and the current perception. Atari saw Gauntlet as a process, a game that was played for its own sake and not to reach completion. The adventurers continue forever until their life drains out, their quest ultimately hopeless.
... in games of Gauntlet I've had with other people in the past few years … their interest tends to survive only until the point where they learn there is no ending. Times have certainly changed."
Game Design Essentials: 20 Atari Games, by John Harris, http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/3679/game_design_essen...
I’d speculate from my experience with game design students that, for whatever reasons, females tend to be more interested in the journey, males more interested in the destination.
We might speculate also that MMOs with level caps (which is typical because it’s hard to design a MMO without a level cap) suit the destination folks, because there is a destination: that maximum level. Similarly, RPGs such as Final Fantasy are attractive to destination people because there is an end to the story. In older RPGs, both the original non-electronic ones and some of the older video games, the game is open-ended. There is no particular destination.
I find it instructive that the latest version of non-electronic Dungeons & Dragons (fourth edition, June 2008) has a definite end. Characters retire, one way or another, when they reach 30th level, and that level is practically reachable, as opposed to a tightly run first edition game where no human character ever got to a maximum level (and certainly not 30th!).
I’ll end with a couple of additional observations.
Dream-fulfillment is close to escapism. Like it or not, many games have a strong escapist element, and it seems strongest where dream-fulfillment is strongest. It is especially important to non-adults. Consider, say, a favorite adolescent male pastime, shooter games:
• The player can be the star, “da man,” which is generally unlike the player’s real life
• Players can experience thrills (even death) without risk of being hurt
• There’s always a way to succeed -- trial and error can work, because it doesn’t matter if you get killed
• Competition is not only permissible, but encouraged
• There’s a structure to everything; most of the uncertainty of real life is not there
• Young people control what happens, and attitudes can be confrontational, edgy.
For a frustrated teenage male who's been told too often what he can and cannot do, this can be a kind of nirvana. Game designers must be aware of the escapist elements of gaming, even if they’re designing a serious game that has few or none of these particular characteristics.
Game players have different kinds of personalities, just as the population at large. A fairly common taxonomy divides people into 16 personalities, as reflected in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (www.myersbriggs.org) and in the writing of David Keirsey and others (e.g., the book Please Understand Me). These are often derived from the work of Carl Jung, and even back to the Greek idea of the “four temperaments”. (A good practical Jung Typology test of personality type is at http://humanmetrics.com/.)
The major point to recognize is that different personalities have different preferences, different ways of collecting information, different ways of reacting to challenges. These personalities are established in childhood and do not change. For example, some people feel better before they make a decision than after, so they tend to gather more information and delay decision-making. Others feel better after they’ve made a decision, so they react to decision-making quite differently. The former may learn to make timely decisions, but to a considerable extent it is against their nature. Similarly, some people rely heavily on logic, others on intuition. Such differences are going to strongly affect their tastes in games, or even whether they play games at all. Keirsey suggested that certain occupations tend to attract certain personality types, and we can wonder if game playing attracts only some of the 16 types.
The major point for inexperienced designers to take from this is you are not like your audience, and you need to decide which kinds of preferences and which ideas about enjoyment your games will target. No game can begin to cover all the bases because there are so many different reasons to like to play games.
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05 Apr 2011
Occasionally I put together a variety of observations that have not lent themselves to separate posts. Here is one from last month.
Those who dislike kingmaking, who feel people shouldn't talk about what others are doing in the game while playing, who want to turn it into individual manipulation of the system, really want puzzles (multiplayer solitaire) rather than games.
What I haven't seen discussed much about wargames is the number of players in a typical wargame. Traditionally, it is two. In Euros, it is about four.
Can wargame "grognards" conceive of a game for at least three separate sides--not two sides with more than one player per side--as a "wargame"? Necessarily, multi-player games with separate sides are going to be grand strategic, so that the details so loved in two-player battle games simply cannot be there.
Moreover, most of the games I'm working on have turns at least 10 years long, up to 200 years long. Can that be a "wargame" to the grognards?
Fortunately, when you combine trends toward simplicity, efforts to shorten games, multi-player situations, grand strategic level, and "sweep of history", it all works together. Whether it is acceptable to "grognards" is another matter.
Another consideration is the old notion that "you are there", "you are in command". You can't feel this at a grand strategic level, certainly not in a sweep of history game. That never made a difference to me, I'm playing a game, not living a role, but it seems to make a lot of difference to many wargamers.
If I want to play a role, I'll play a role-playing game (RPG). I think some wargamers are suspicious of RPGs, the rules aren't highly defined, they're too "loosy-goosy". So they find their role-playing in their wargames.
You can design video games that encourage regular, simple activity. And that might keep a person playing the game. But is that what you, as a designer, want, to make a game that becomes a mechanical exercise, a very simple puzzle? Or a form of chemical addiction? Not me.
Ian Schreiber calls it "sticky" games. I call it minor league addiction. And that's not what I want to design. I hope online "social netowrking" games can rise above it.
One of the reasons many people like Britannia-like games is that they are highly asymmetric, yet because you have multiple nations you're not trapped in a particular role that asymmetry might otherwise dictate (such as defend and preserve, or attack and conquer) for the entire game.
Heard at PrezCon: Is it true that Britannia waives the rules?
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03 Apr 2011
Tuesday, March 15, 2011
Dragon & Pearl Brit-like game
I'm going to be at the UK Game Expo in Birmingham this June 3-5. While checking out some exhibitors, I discovered that the China Britannia-like game The Dragon & the Pearl is evidently back in print (for 19.99 pounds, though shipping to this country would be expensive). See
I have a copy of this game, though I haven't played it. It appears to be avoid the major error of China: the Middle Kingdom (which is, limiting action to within modern Chinese boundaries). It is closer to Brit in its rules than CtMK is.
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01 Apr 2011
Saturday, March 12, 2011
. I was asked to write something for the blog of Buffalo Games, a smallish mass-market game company that, I confess, I had not heard of. They have since abandoned the blog, and posted it on their Facebook page.
They also published a "Q&A" with me.
Game design is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. Don’t think that the idea is important. What makes a marketable game is the execution, the creation of a complete game, not the idea. Some ideas are better than others, true, but there are hardly any original ideas–if you’ve thought of it, probably a hundred others have as well. Virtually no publisher pays for an idea, publishers pay for completed games (though they may then change them...). So be prepared to work!
The second most important thing to remember about ideas is, you need to work at getting lots of them: maybe a few will work out well.
Ideas come from everywhere, from all kinds of associations: you must actively seek to get ideas, don’t wait for them to come floating by.
Lots of people have game ideas, fewer make a prototype, fewer still actually play the game. You don’t really have a game until you have a prototype that can be played. It needn’t be pretty, but it must be functional. If people enjoy playing a merely functional version of the game, they’ll enjoy the pretty published version even more. Maybe when you submit the completed game to a publisher you’ll make a pretty version.
You don’t have to have a full set of rules to start with, you just need to know how to play. Writing nearly-perfect rules is the hardest part of designing a game. Trying to write perfect rules when the game is new may be a waste of time, as the game IS going to change. In the end, though, if the rules are inadequate, the game won’t be played correctly, which is usually a disaster, and you can’t leave rules writing until the very end because the rules must be tested just as the game must be tested.
“Playtesting is sovereign”. Play your prototype, probably solo at first to work out the worst kinks, then have others play. And play. And play. Virtually no game prototype is good at first. The key to a good game is to playtest it, revise it, playtest it, revise it, playtest it, revise it, and so forth until the gameplay is polished to a gleam. Change is the norm.
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