Lewis Pulsipher(lewpuls)United States
Three Subjects in One Blog Post
• Games are not inherently nice
• The Supernatural as an explanation of history - Bad Idea
• Heavy dependence of Ancient and Medieval armies on their specific leader
I am "old school" in the sense that I think of games as involving conflict and opposition, as challenge and mastery, not as story-telling or being nice to everyone. Games are not inherently nice.
But the latter sentence is why I stopped playing games against other people more than 40 years ago, and prefer to play co-operative games: fantasy role-playing is the epitome of co-operative game.
Add to that I dislike puzzles. so I'm not at all attracted by parallel competitions (Euro "games" commonly) even though, for the most part, they are "nice" games - if you can call them games at all.
One of the worst examples of historical "scholarship" is to attribute causation to the supernatural. The supernatural, whether gods or spirits or something else, can always be adduced as a cause of something, but explains nothing. The historian's job is to explain not only what happened but Why, and using the supernatural as a why is a waste of everyone's time.
I don't think "supernatural" exists. The trend of human history begins with suggestions that the supernatural is involved in many phenomena, then finding naturalistic explanations that don't require the supernatural. "The supernatural" keeps shrinking. Is there any reason to think this won't continue? No.
Yet even if I did believe the supernatural exists, I'd object to its use in historical scholarship. It's not an explanation.
One of the most marked, and interesting, characteristics of ancient and medieval armies was their psychological dependence on a single leader.
If their leader was killed, or even wounded, they lost heart and retreated or even broke. There's a story that William the Conqueror's horse was killed under him twice, and that nearly did in the Normans even though he was unhurt. There wasn't a clear chain of command so that a second leader could take over. Very different from modern armies, of course.
This is perhaps understandable when the leader was the king (or wannabe king), and there was no adult heir present. But it happened with non-royal generals with great frequency. Yet the leaders were expected to be in the thick of the fighting. Alexander the Great was crazy brave for a monarch, once leading an escalade on a city (Tyre?). At least once he was barely saved from battle death by a companion.
Even Napoleon took some big chances when he was younger. I should think the French army might have lost it if the later *Emperor* Napoleon had been killed in battle (there was no adult heir anywhere), but in general armies survived the loss of their leader without breaking. Many, many generals were killed during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, though rarely the commander of an army - but artillery nearly hit Wellington at Waterloo.
This heavy dependence on one leader is why the death of William or Harold, in my game Hastings 1066, makes so much difference (though less than it would have historically). Whereas in Stalingrad Besieged (1942) using a variation of the same system, there are no leaders, it's all faceless struggle.
A reminder that my “Game Design” channel on YouTube continues to offer free videos about game design, one every Thursday, nearly 300 available. I say free: I cannot control the advertising, and don’t make any money from it as I don’t have enough subscribers. The channel exists thanks to contributions from my patrons (https://www.patreon.com/LewisPulsipher).
Latest video has the LONG title "Good and weak gamers, with respect to chance and randomness, and how this affects game design" at https://youtu.be/0Kg3NbqHrAU
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/
Archive for Miscellany
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Three subjects in one blog post
• Yomi vs minimaxing
• Changes in habits from Corona/Covid-19
• Solo and Co-op Games
Yomi vs minimaxing
I realized recently that what I’m trying to do in my block games is to emphasize the uncertainty of warfare by offering opportunities to use Yomi rather than the typical wargame minimaxing. Yomi is a Japanese word referring to reading the opponent’s intentions that has been adapted to games. When you rely on Yomi you’re attempting to read or guess or divine your enemy’s intentions and take advantage of that. It is a riskier, more romantic way to do things. But it’s absolutely necessary in real warfare because there is insufficient information.
In a wargame, where typically a great deal of information is known, it’s possible to use a minimax strategy, that is to play the game as a game rather than as warfare. You can calculate what to do to maximize your minimum gain, assuming that your opponent is a perfect player; if they prove to be a less than perfect player you will do better than you expected. (This all flows from the mathematical theory of games.)
By using the hidden identity and hidden strength possible with blocks I try to move the game towards Yomi and away from minimax.
Which is all a bit strange considering that I’m a minimaxer rather than a Yomi player. But I design games for other people, not for myself.
Changes in habits from Corona/Covid-19
The coronavirus affects games because most game shops are closed. I’m told by one of my publishers that money from the typical hobby distribution through distributors to the game shops has dried up, though webstore sales are okay. But it all makes for precarious cash flows.
I hear that in the comic industry, where everything is distributed by one company (Diamond), things are precarious. Diamond has already suspended shipping to comic shops because they’re not getting paid by comic shops (most of which are closed). This lack of payment has also led them to suspend payments to comics publishers. Comics publishers aren’t nearly as strong as they used to be, in fact superhero style comics have been in decline for a decade despite the success of superhero movies. I don’t think Marvel any longer make any money from the movies, as the Marvel movies are owned by Disney. Whether publishers will be able to survive the lack of payments is unknown.
Diamond is a distributor for some RPGs as well as comics. Alliance, the main distributor for hobby tabletop games (and the same ownership as Diamond), has closed down temporarily.
I wonder if our local game store is likely to survive the hiatus. It was struggling as it was, as the local area has a smallish population for a game store (250,000 for the entire county), mitigated by the presence of 70,000+ college students. But in my experience, few college students actually buy games.
(Minor calculation: if there are 330,000,000 people in the US, and 3000 games stores (I believe that’s much higher than reality), each store serves on average 110,000 people (about the population of Gainesville without students). If there are 1500 games stores then each would serve on average of 220,000 people. Someone started a second game store in Gainesville, but it lasted only a year.)
It doesn’t take a crystal ball to recognize that habits will change for some people after the pandemic. The pandemic has forced people to do things remotely, and to do digital rather than physical (for example in comic books and RPG books). How many of those people will continue to do things digitally rather than physically after the pandemic? This puts even more pressure on local game shops, even if they’ve survived the pandemic itself.
As I discussed this with my wife she said that if game shops fail then after while there will be other entrepreneurs who try their luck at running a game shop. But if the comics collapse, it will be that much harder to run a game shop, as many game shops rely on comics sales as well. And many people are aware of the old joke, “how do you make a small fortune in game retail?” Answer: “Start with a large fortune.”
Solo and Co-op Games
How much demand is there for tabletop games that only offer solo play? One of the major strengths of tabletop games is their socialization aspects, yet it’s well-known that many people play military games solitaire for lack of opponents.
Solo and cooperative versions are increasingly popular even for games that are designed to be competitive. I have designed three or four co-op games lately, and I’ve been putting solo versions into my games (as in my latest, Stalingrad Besieged, as best I could (that is, without increasing the cost).
But the typical co-op game is rather Euro-like, whereas mine are wargame-like.
Latest (free) videos on my YouTube “Game Design” Channel:
What causes exceptions to the rules?
Exceptions to the rules make a game more complicated, Even in a video game, where the rules are enforced by the software, the players have to learn what the exceptions are. So what causes a game design to have rules exceptions?
Pros and Cons of RPG character ability generation methods
What are the pros and cons of the two fundamental methods of RPG character generation, the stochastic (dice rolling) and the deterministic (point buy)?
"Yomi" versus Minimax
Some people play opposed games (such as historical representations of warfare) according to game theory notions (minimax), others act as many generals have and try to read the intentions of their opponents, then act accordingly. Yomi is closely related to intuition, minimax to logic. I've discussed intuition and logic in another video, https://youtu.be/M63j6_8D6iI
Getting started: World-Building
Some questions to ask yourself, and an admonition that it's the game (or novel) you should spend most of your time on, not the world.
21st century gamers are usually deficient in military strategy
In my experience (mostly with tabletoppers), 21st century gamers are poor at military-style strategy. They don't think in long-term, don't see in long-term. It is, after all, the Age of Instant Gratification. It's not different in video games, because video game "wargames" are usually resource management games, not wargames. And video games encourage the "instant gratification" point of view.
10 "need to knows" about level and adventure design
Level and adventure design is related to game design, but not the same thing.
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21 Jan 2018
• Where did we start out with in games?
• "Why should designers avoid these two extremely popular mechanisms?
• Catch-up Mechanisms - Why?
Where did we start out with in games? I suspect games started with players using their physical bodies, for example, in wrestling or running. Wrestling is the ultimate direct conflict between two sides. Running is the ultimate parallel competition, if you're running in separate lanes, because you can't do anything to hinder or help the opposition.
The first games, then, were likely "athleticware", depending primarily on athletic prowess and skill.
Games of chance probably preceded board games. Even where dice are unknown you can have a game of chance, as long as you can find objects that are two-sided that can be flipped or thrown. For example, you can throw a bunch of sea shells or throw a bunch of stones, you can even split a stick lengthwise and then throw a group of sticks to see whether they come up flat side or round side. We know from some games that use these methods that the ancients were poor at probability in relation to these two-sided questions. At some point someone invented a boardgame, if only to put holes in the ground for some form of mancala. Card games (and tile games beginning with dominoes) came vastly later.
So the ancient Greek Olympics involved everything ranging from direct competition to entirely parallel competition, but it was all using one's body. In that respect. These are athleticware, as opposed to thoughtware/brainware which occurs when you play a board game where good thinking is your path to success.
With video games, we’ve veered back toward athleticware (especially in AAA, not so much in casual).
Comment on a forum "Why should designers avoid these two extremely popular mechanisms? (Worker placement and deck-building)"
Why would I use a mechanism simply because it's popular? Especially a mechanism I dislike personally? I adapt mechanisms to the situation the game represents, or I devise my own mechanisms. That is, I might design several games using the same base system that I've devised, but I don't go out of my way to use a mechanism devised by someone else (though I have nothing against that, I just don't intend to do it). Long ago I did adopt other systems (Stratego, though quite modified). Not these days.
Now, there are SO many worker placement games, and SO many deck-building games, why would I want to make yet another one?
Many years ago (when it was still new) I did consider adapting deck-building to a Zombie apocalypse-style game, but it didn't work for me.
From an online forum: "But a board game should not be too punishing either. I despise board games where you just can't catch up when someone has an early lead, and where you already know far before the end that you will lose."
"Should" is a slippery word, different people have different opinions. Nor does every game need to be the same. So "punishing" mistakes is more appropriate in some games, less in others.
It's more often puzzles/parallel competitions where you can't catch up, than opposed games. Because in the former you have no strong way to affect the other players.
Nonetheless, there will be times when one player will play much better than others (or be much luckier): should that player be punished by having to put up with (from their point of view) bogus catch-up mechanisms?
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I rarely get around to posting individual links to my "Game Design" YouTube channel here, so I decided to list the most recent screencasts instead.
Departing from the standard (card game) sequence of play
The standard sequence of play makes a specialty card game easier to learn. But don't "settle" for it, your game may be better with something else.
Nuts & Bolts: How to get an improvisers's game from a planner's game
I describe how I changed Britannia, an historical Planner's game par excellence, into an Improviser's space wargame, with just a few changes. Very different experience, essentially same underlying mechanics.
Ranking Sources of Information About Game Design Two parts
The best way to learn is to make games. The second best way is to talk with (and listen to) other game designers, whether informally or in a class. After that there are many sources of learning, and I've ranked those in a two-part screencast.
Eight awful truths about game marketing
I ran across "10 Awful Truths about Book Marketing" online, and seeing the parallels with games, I'm discussing those Truths (including the two that don't apply). Another time I'll discuss some strategies you can follow to do your best in this environment.
There's no "Secret Knowledge" or "secret Sauce" (nor conspiracies) in Game Design
Aspiring designers sometimes believe that there's a secret formula to game design, and all they have to do is follow it. Nothing could be further from the truth. The delusion seems to be common in society these days, that there's a secret knowledge to any discipline. It's the kind of thing that helps fuel conspiracy theories.
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I rarely get around to posting individual links to my "Game Design" YouTube channel here, so I decided to list the most recent screencasts instead.
Nuts & Bolts: How a game can derive from a bit of another? https://youtu.be/z64CmrVCYN4
It's not unusual for a game to use a system that's been successful in another game. But sometimes one game grows out of a small bit of another.
Constraints in games from a player viewpoint (two parts) https://youtu.be/p_zEo1Dt0JQ
Though contemporary gamers (especially video gamers) tend to dislike constraints, practically speaking games ARE merely sets of constraints. Properly specified constraints can make the game especially interesting. for the player(s).
Digital Game Pricing (2 parts) https://youtu.be/Zr_67zmDtWQ
Some people suppose that there's a "solution" to (over)saturation of the downloadable game market. There are lots of schemes, but I don't see any solutions in this detailed examination.
RPGs: Stifling Creativity? https://youtu.be/anLNLWX090s
It seems too many DMs are guilty of letting players push them around, resulting in a waste of time while a player tries to convince the MD that such-and-such wildly unlikely occurrence should be assigned a decent chance of happening. When you enforce the game rules (and physics) you simply the game and keep it moving along, you aren't stifling creativity.
Yes, the dead-kobold wielder actually said "You're stifling my creativity." Poppycock!
Practical vs Reality https://youtu.be/kjbHNC3nkhk
Game design is a series of compromises, and major compromises can occur when reality and what's practical in a game clash. Some "practical decisions" result in behavior that has next to nothing to do with reality.
My Patreon is at:
My thanks for the support from Rossan 78.
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07 Dec 2016
(Except this time it’s four to get to a 1,000 words. . .!)
Programming is not “Integral” to Games
Special Powers Card Games
Programming is not “Integral” to Games
(Originally written in 2009. And we now see, with Unity, how much easier it is to make video game software than in 2009.) I don't regard video games as fundamentally different from non-electronic games. There are tens of thousands of non-electronic games that were never touched by a programmer. If the video game designer had some "magic" (technologically advanced) way to create the software - and as time goes on and technology improves, this will be the case - then programmers would be unnecessary.
That's why I regard programming as a necessary evil of video games, not fundamental to games.
It is already the case that someone who isn't a programmer by training or inclination can create the equivalent of Pac-Man with Gamemaker in a fairly short time. More and more complex video games will be made without trained/professional programmers.
Ultimately, programming is "donkey work," something that ought to be done by machines. But I could say the same about many kinds of work. Some of those kinds of work have already disappeared or are disappearing, some will disappear. Programming is going to be done by machines--already is, in many cases, though the machines are using software created by programmers - long before design or art is done by machines.
I read something recently about a game covering the fall of Rome in Britain, and about incorporating Arthurian stories into it.
Yes, I included Arthur in Britannia, but that was literary license, not history.
Yes, there are lots of books supposedly about Arthur, all amounting to "well, this could have meant that, and could have been about the person we call Arthur" that then transforms into "this was Arthur". It's a big industry of speculation with virtually no foundation, much more fiction than fact. There is NO contemporary evidence for "Arthur", almost no contemporary evidence for *anything* in this time period. ("Dark Ages", remember? Dark because of lack of information, not a comment on the standard of living.)
A big reason why history changes so much from one generation to the next, is that so much of it is malleable rather than certain. History becomes, not fact, but fiction intended to appeal to the desires or needs of contemporaries.
"Pop" history, video history as we sometimes see on the History Channel, is a reflection of this. It's history as modified by what "the masses" want it to be.
Special Powers Card Games
One reason why Magic:the Gathering became successful is that it was, if not the first game, one of the first games where the main interaction is between the cards of the two players, using special powers that are exceptions to the rules. That has been generalized for many card games, it's a kind of game that's easy to make, and I know several budding designers whose first game is of this type.
I am not a fan of them because they don't have anything do with reality. Some of the people who are designing the games may think so - but there's a weak grasp on reality these days. Yu-Gi-Oh is even worse because lacks the constraint of "lands".
For me any "theme" in these games is just a gloss. It's not something that actually affects how the cards are played or how the game is designed. It doesn't help people understand how the game works, either.
My name for this kind of game is "Special Powers Card Game" (SPCG).
Pundits are still pontificating about whether virtual-reality games (VR) will succeed as a business, and have been since the announced release date for the Oculus VR with the anticipation that it’s Valve and Sony competitors would be not far behind.
I have not used one of these contemporary VR systems, and I read that people who do are often converted to the cause. My experience goes back some decades when (at a convention I cannot otherwise recall) I put on a primitive VR-like device. It was suspended as a pair of eyeglasses, but with one side empty and the other side occupied by a small module. That module produced a red dot on black screen display (this tells you how old it was) that substituted for the screen display of typical computers of the time. You could see the “screen” with one eye while the other could see your normal surroundings. I didn’t try to play a game with it but I was quite impressed with how very well it substituted for a screen.
I also recall, in the early to mid 90s, watching a graphical “virtual tour” of a part of the new Womack Medical Center that was being built. The 486 computers of the day really weren’t fast enough to render the tour in more than slow motion. It was quite fascinating nonetheless.
More recently I’ve seen augmented reality (AR) games, and I understand that game developers are far more gung ho about AR than about VR, yet few of them are actually producing AR products. [Written before Pokemon Go was released! I bet a lot more are working on AR now.]
Within the past six or seven years I’ve also been in a virtual-reality chamber where three walls showed a seascape and you could walk around looking at it.
Recognizing that computing power is still advancing rapidly, and thinking about how the graphical capabilities of computers have changed from the old ASCII graphics to modern 3-D, it appears to me to be inevitable that VR will succeed sooner or later. Too many people want to reach the Star Trek holodeck stage for maximum immersion.
Whether the current products will start that progression, or fail as those of the past have failed, is subject to all kinds of chance and unforeseen factors (such as hygiene?). Remember, the best products don’t always prevail in the marketplace (Betamax versus VHS VCR for example). Timing is very important, and we have no idea, even now with products out there, whether the timing is good.
My Black Friday/Christmas sale on my online game design courses is listed on my website, http://pulsiphergames.com/#BlackFriday
Doomstar has sold better than the average mobile game, though how it compares with other PC (and Mac/Linux) games I do not know. It’s on Steam as “Lew Pulsipher’s Doomstar” but Doomstar is good enough to search. Or buy from the publisher https://largevisiblemachine.itch.io/doomstar
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Three different topics in one blog post."The game must be fun to play"
I've been looking at tabletop publisher submission guidelines and often see some form of this ridiculous statement: "Game must be fun to play"
Why is this ridiculous? Because how enjoyable a game is depends so much on the preferences of the target market that there's no such thing as a "fun game", period. I don't use the word fun at all, because I think fun comes from the people you play with, and the circumstances, and that's how people can have fun playing a dire game like Monopoly, or even a super-serious game like chess. Lots of people enjoy playing chess, but half of them wouldn't call it fun (yes, I've asked chess players).
Look at the movie reviews at Metacritic.com and you'll see how two people can have entirely opposite views of whether a movie is good. With more genres, more variety, games are even more subject to variable opinions.
So to say "fun game" is so personal that it's no guide to a designer who may want to submit a prototype.
Occasionally I'll write to the publisher who's done the "fun thing" and try to get them to explain what they like. Sometimes it's hard to pin them down, sometimes not. They all know (or think they know) what they think a fun game is, but do they consciously know?
I am rarely in a game shop, both because they're scarce and because I live "out in the country". I recently went to one for a game designers' guild meeting, and took time to look at what was on offer (other than comic books).
First, I saw lots of boxes, large and small, containing miniatures, including games using miniatures. Star Wars X-Wing, War Machine, War Hammer, and others. A 2 inch tank was discounted to $11.51! To me, never in sympathy with miniatures prices at the best of times, the prices were breathtaking. But that means big profits for the shop.
It also showed how much game shops are driven by hit games, hardly a surprise.
I also saw lots of CCGs and accessories, also providing great profit margins to the shop.
More than half the square footage of the shop was devoted to game playing space. I was told that on Wednesdays, boardgame night, the place was full, which would be 50 people I'd guess. The Thursday I was there, with no formal organization, there were 10 in the game area.
My experience is a little different in Gainesville, Fl, where there's one boardgame shop, and another I haven't visited that is comics and so forth (and Magic) and not much in the way of boardgames.
There are game events every evening (7 days a week) at this shop. But what dominates the shop's revenue is Magic: the Gathering, and many of the events are Magic tournaments or casual play.
Not surprising about Magic, it is much more than half the CCG category, and CCGs are much more than half the tabletop game category, in the US (by revenue). Magic is about a third of the whole.
****Instant Gratification, Generational Differences
I can record a hockey or basketball game and watch it a day (or two) later; as long as I haven't heard the score, it's just as "real" as at the time it was actually played. Many people absolutely don't understand how I can do this. It's because I have an imagination, and because I'm not wedded to Instant Gratification. But also, I don't rely on social media for my enjoyment of the game; I have other things to do during a game, if I'm not going to just watch it.
I always hated ABC for those NASL soccer games interrupted by commercials. Not the interruption, but the fact that they didn't tape delay so that you saw the entire game. Instead they'd come back occasionally and say "while you were away a goal was scored" and show the replay. DUMB! I didn't care if it wasn't quite "live", I did care not to be told what happened "before" it happened!
Life in general isn't a matter of what's new, it's a matter of what's new to you at the time. Yes, the hockey game is "old news" to some, but to me it's new at the time.
The game Stratego is new to someone first playing it even though it's been around for more than 70 years, and its nearly-identical predecessor (L' Attaque) has been around for more than a hundred.
The whole notion of “innovative mechanic” or “innovative game” is so wrapped up with what players have known before, as to be mostly-useless.
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Really Old Commercial Wargames
One of my favorite games before I encountered Avalon Hill wargames was American Heritage Broadsides. It was non-random; the only uncertainty in the game was in where the defender placed his cannon, some of which scored hits and some of which did not, information not available to the attacker until one of his ships passed the gun and took the consequences. At the other end of the spectrum we had Conflict, a game with planes and armies and ships (all metal miniatures), but which was mostly a dice game. You rolled two dice and moved two of your pieces the distance of one of the dice. When you moved over an opposing piece you eliminated it. The game amounted to putting yourself in the right position and hoping to roll doubles, which would let you roll again.
Along with the Avalon Hill games we had Risk and Diplomacy. Risk is a game that depends strongly on dice and on the luck of the territory cards. Diplomacy is a game with no overt random element but with simultaneous movement, so that sometimes, intricate tactics and possibly guessing or trying to divine the intentions of the enemy were involved. Of course in both games you had the potential for negotiation - more or less a requirement in Diplomacy - because each player was outnumbered heavily by the other players in combination. You had to talk to people to try to change those odds.
“Holes” (Plot and Setting) in Military Novels
In David Weber's well-known Honor Harrington military SF series, the space battles are quite detailed. But as with most novels I read nowadays, there are holes you could drive a truck through, sometimes holes in setting, sometimes in plot. In this series, for example, missiles are the long-range space battle weapon. But in the books, battles often hinge on missiles having finite range because they burn up all their fuel, then "go ballistic" so that they can't maneuver (maneuver is particularly important).
Why not burn up some fuel, continue indefinitely at whatever velocity one reaches, then burn the rest of the fuel for maneuver when they reach the enemy? So simply obvious. Weber seems to somehow be thinking in earthly terms, where a missile that isn't burning fuel, slows down and eventurally crashes. Doh!
“Wave Your Hand” History
We have always had “pop” (popular) history as now embodied in The History Channel, though in the past it was in books and not in video. We’ve also had speculative history, and it has to be said that most historians have to speculate at one time or another because there is no way to know the truth.
I’m not sure how much in the past we’ve had what I call “wave your hand history”. By this I mean history where the “historian” collects a series of bits of history and links them all to one particular thesis by saying “well, this could relate to” whatever topic he or she is pursuing. At some point this “could” becomes “does” and pure speculation turns into “history”. For example, there is no contemporary evidence for the existence of “King Arthur,” whether as King of the Britons or as a war leader. But there’s an entire industry of book publishing (and public speaking) revolving around the supposed existence of Arthur. The epitome of this is the book “The Historic King Arthur” by Frank D. Reno, who has evidently made a career of getting paid to speculate about Arthur. He takes little bits of information that we have about various shadowy people and presumes that all relate to someone named Arthur, and ends up with a “history” of the “real Arthur”. To me this is somewhere between disingenuous and just plain dishonest. This period really is the Dark Ages with very little written information available, and not much archaeology.
The fundamental premise in Da Vinci Code (Mary Magdelaine) feels much like this. (I have not read the book, only watched the movie.)
Bits of news:
I intend to be at the UK Game Expo in 2016.
Sea Kings is less than $40 at coolstuffinc.com.
Black Friday will see a sale on my online classes - see pulsiphergames.com Thanksgiving Day. This is the only time of the year that I give discounts beyond the standard discount.
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08 Jun 2015
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.
I've recently opened a brief (one hour?) online course, "Prospering at Game Conventions and Conferences" on Udemy.
This is officially $5, but FREE to you with this URL-coupon:
At the same time I've opened an "Introduction to (Tabletop) Role-playing Game Design"
More than four hours long, but it IS an introduction.
This is $15 on Udemy, with this URL-coupon it's $12:
I will soon start a Patreon campaign for support for my Game Design channel on YouTube, as well.
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Thoughts about some game-related topics that are not long enough for separate blog posts.
I'll be giving a talk at WBC in early August, and four at GenCon in mid-August.
I am all for using games in education. But not for what so many "experts" mean by "gamification". *Shakes head*. The bandwagon for "gamification" (which I call scorification) is immense. I would not want to be associated with the word. Use "game-based learning" when you're using actual games for learning. Leave the word "gamification" to applications that don't use actual games.
GenCon now clearly as much a story convention as a game convention: writer's panels displaced the independent game seminars from the convention center.
Recipe for disaster? An English-language Kickstarter pitch for a Dutch game, but they haven't finished the English translation of the rules. What about testing them?
Can you call something a "block game" if it doesn't use steps (rotate)? If it doesn't use dice? Is Stratego a "block game"? No, I'd say. What seems to characterize block games is hidden identity and the rotation to show different strengths.
Why do people pay $4 for a coffee, not for a mobile game? Maybe because there is no cost to making more of the video game, while there is a cost to making more coffee.
Games often show a typical misunderstanding of pirates. Pirates used small ships full of men to board, not guns, lousy for commerce. Pirates were NOT merchants, nor could they profitably live as merchants using those small ships.
Moreover, piracy tended to be a democracy, not highly disciplined. And pirates did NOT like to fight, by and large.
(Vikings had that fame and Valhalla thing about fighting, but mostly they avoided fighting, as well. And when they did fight a pitched battle, they lost as often as they won.)
Narratives - accounts of what happens - are often NOT good stories, not interesting unless you're the person it happened to. If I were a professional story-maker I'd never call myself "narrative consultant."
I’ve never seen a plastic meeple. Surely when mass-produced they’d be cheaper than wood. (What brought this to mind was the idea that plastics are cheaper from China, wood cheaper from Germany/eastern Europe.)
I suspect there's a pretty strong tendency for new publishers to prefer unknown designers to someone who is well-established/well-known. First, they'll pay them less. Second, the new designer will be less demanding/have lower expectations. Third, the publisher will be the most prominent part of the package, not the designer.
I keep reading about photo-realistic video games that nonetheless sound more and more abstract in actual play. . . So many gaming conventions (that's things typically done, not gatherings of gamers) that have no correspondence to reality (such as weapons and med-kits lying all over the place, switchable skills).
"Replayability is a primary quality of the greatest games. Product sustained by the cult of the new only has to be good for a few sessions." -Jeff Johnson, http://jeffro.wordpress.com/2014/05/21/my-hobby-is-not-about...
Odd email request: someone making a game for his girlfriend. Asked for the astronomical photo I used as background for a prototype, minus the grid etc. So I sent it to him.
TV/fiction tropes: Interesting reading for aspiring writers (and, sometimes, game designers): tvtropes.org
There's more to designing games than the activity of designing games, especially for video games. Usually video games are created by groups, and the designer must clearly and accurately communicate with the programmers, artists, and others making the game.
For tabletop games it's more solitary, but you have licensing, marketing
The heart of a novel is characterization, though there's more to it than that (plot, dramatic tension, etc.). The heart of a game is gameplay, though there's more to it than that (interface, appearance, sometimes story, etc.) We might add here, the heart of an interactive puzzle (such as many one-player video games) is challenge, though there's more to it than that.
Quoted from my "Game Design" book (McFarland 2012)
“Gamification” in practice amounts to scorification of *contests*, not use of actual gameplay techniques. There is no game. . .
Contest: each competitor does something separately, without being able to affect the other competitors through gameplay. Compare results.
I see people designing lots of tabletop fighting games an even shooters and equivalents of MMOs.
Just because it's a game, doesn't mean it's suitable for the tabletop.
Lots of fundamentally repetitious video games don't translate well to the tabletop. Those video games are quite long or don't have a well-defined end at all (fighting games are an exception). And most of those games are essentially athletic contests, sports. Neither of those characteristics translates well to the tabletop. Moreover, the computer can keep track of details, and provide "fog of war", that are very hard to reproduce in tabletop games.
When I need to change something to improve a game, I look for an historical/modeling reason first, rather than simply look for a good mechanic. Those accustomed to making essentially abstract games, even if they have a so-called "theme", think of mechanics first, not modeling.
Morgan Freeman on art :
"I don't think that anything where you start off with something is an art form. If you start off with a blank page or a blank canvas or a blank slab or a blank stone, you're going to create something."
Games certainly qualify by that definition.
At a tabletop game club meeting earlier this year, there were 55 attendees. Many of them did not appear to recognize Axis & Allies . . .
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