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I have become a columnist on ENWorld, the most common meeting-place for fans of tabletop RPGs. (As some of you know, I was columnist/contributing editor of many RPG magazines in the late 70s and early 80s, such as Dragon, White Dwarf, Space gamer, and others.) These appear about twice a month.
#1 Dilemma of Simple RPG 29 Apr 17
#2 Consequence and Reward 20 May 17
#3 Let's Not Save the World . . . Again (elements of pacing) 7 June 17
#4 Different look at playing styles 7/8/2017
#5 Tactical Styles in Combat Oriented RPGs 7/22/2017
I don't post individual links to my "Game Design" YouTube channel here, so I list the most recent screencasts instead.
Little choices can make a big difference in design
I try to illustrate how seemingly small choices can make a big difference to a game design.
Nuts & Bolts: The Co-op "Fail Mechanic"
I explain why I call co-ops with one winner a "fail-mechanic." With some players it just won't work.
Strategies to Respond to the "Eight Awful Truths" of game marketing
Original Awful Truths are at https://youtu.be/DbNlo4Jgk4A
13 "Laws" of Game Design
Like many "laws", these are more strong probabilities than absolutes.
Play to win? Nope.
Pundits have sometimes been slow on the uptake, but it will come as no surprise to game players that playing to win is not the objective of many players. Keep that in mind when you design your games.
Two+ Weeks Away at WBC and GenCon 2016
I wrote most of this last year, not long after returning from these two conventions. But as you see, I didn’t finish it until now. When I say “this year”below, I usually mean 2016, and “next year” is 2017. Because the conventions were on successive weeks (unlike 2017) I was able to go to WBC, then to my sister’s, then to GenCon, then to my brother’s, and home - more than 2,000 miles.
Going away for an extended period is, incidentally, a way to get rid of some unproductive habits.
WBC was at a new venue in a new location this year, a ski resort in Seven Springs Pennsylvania. In fact the resort is the town, there is no town of Seven Springs. Someone purchased a lot of land and set up a resort in the middle of nowhere, more or less, and takes advantage of the monopoly pricing that goes along with that. I know there were many people who had reservations about the new location, including me. As it turned out, the convention is very spread out - I overheard one person say his hotel room was over 1000 paces from the open gaming area at the other end of the complex - but the facilities are also much newer, and much more interesting to look at, then at the Lancaster Host where the convention has been for some years. (As the Britannia GM, Jim Jordan, put it: "Seven Springs is a really nice place and the game spaces were terrific compared to those we’ve had in the past."
Housing and food were very expensive (compared with Lancaster) owing to the monopoly nature of the location. Because the location in Lancaster is a tourist area, there were lots of hotels and restaurants short distances from the convention. At Lancaster I used to camp - a campground is only 400 yards from the Host, with a river running by and only cornfields on the other side of the river. One year I waited too long to reserve, and I'm getting older, so more recently I stayed in a decent (and cheap) Knights Inn a mile away. Nothing like that in Seven Springs!
My early impression was this: Yes, some things will likely be improved next year. But some things cannot change: the fundamental situation is that you're in the middle of NOwhere, and subject to a monopoly, with all the potential for slackness that a monopoly often entails.
The resort did try harder, evidently feeling a need to host conventions in the summertime because it doesn't get many people coming to the resort when skiing is not available. While I was scouting out the convention on the first day I was there (first Sunday) I discovered that part of the area where wargames were being played was not air-conditioned. I didn't visit there again, but I'm told that the resort put nine portable air conditioners into the area the next day.
There are other leisure activities available at the resort such as bowling, waterslides, zip lines, etc. But these are not cheap, the best deal being $30 a day to use any or all of them.
The nearest gas station is at least 9 miles away, and only one hotel slightly nearer than that. But I suspect more people will stay in that more-distant area next year than this year. My roommate and I were in four-story wooden buildings for skiers. (No elevator in sight, but if you're fit enough to ski then hauling baggage up three flights of stairs won't bother you.) While the literature said we'd be within a mile of the convention center, that was as the crow flies (or as the skier skis), driving it was over three and half miles one way. No ice, not even shampoo - but 6 bars of soap!
When you're already driving 3 1/2 miles, 9 miles doesn't sound so bad. I encountered someone at midweek who came up just for a day and night, and he had been told that the resort hotel, despite having 10 floors and something like 70 rooms per floor, was full.
Given the statistics (1 of 4 Americans over 60 is diabetic), many people at WBC must be diabetic. But the food on offer did not feel accommodating. Then again, they're geared for skiers, not lots of older folks.
With the uncertainty and "exclusivity" of the venue, you'd expect attendance to be down. Yet it seemed to me that there were about as many attendees as in previous years. For my Thursday evening talk I had about as many people as I would normally expect at that time. The Britannia tournament actually had more unique individual players than the preceding year (35). But I overheard GM's of other tournaments asking one another for help in voting (to get approval next year) because their attendance was so down, and I was told of another tournament that had something like 50 instead of 100 participants. Someone at my talk, sounding as though he had certain information, said the attendance was down.
So it has proved: “the overall paid headcount was down 22% from 2015 totals, attendees arrived earlier and stayed longer in the nine-day conference that no longer was split between pre-con and WBC week activities. 25 events drew triple-digit participation - up one from 2015 - as the average tournament field declined by only .7 player from 59.6 to 58.9 and 14 returning events actually posted their largest fields of the past decade. 152 of the scheduled 154 events achieved tournament status with fields ranging from a minimum of eight to 288 players for Splendor!” (Attendance in the past exceeded 1,500.)
As is typical of boardgame conventions such as WBC, it's a rarity to see a black person amongst the players. Lots of women and youngsters, though. As always, WBC is very family-friendly. The problem with family friendly is bawling kids (3 weeks old in one case!).
As many readers know, I do not play my own games once published. That's because I design games for other people, not for myself. But also my favorite game is the game of designing games, and playing my own published game rarely advances my game design. (I do play variations of my published games when I'm considering revision for a new edition, of course.)
At WBC this year I broke my streak, playing in the third heat of the Britannia tournament so that two other people could play (including the GM, who played twice to make up the numbers, and who had not been able to play in the first two rounds). I managed to win as green, but later announced my Retirement Undefeated rather than playing in the semi final! Mission accomplished.
I have never claimed to be a top class Britannia player. And some people would say that game designers are rarely very good at playing their own games.
More than 10 years ago, when I was just peeking back into the hobby I'd ignored for 20+ years, Brian Carr told me about some of the remarkable people who played Britanna, even though it had been out of print for some years. There are still remarkable people playing, and I once again enjoyed a "traditional" dinner with them at WBC.
The somewhat out-of-the-way vendors area at WBC was reasonably populated, though my friends from "Against the Odds" magazine didn't come citing the costs, and Worthington Publishing didn't come because one of their daughters was getting married. Still, GMT was there (and they're not at GenCon), Academy Games, Lost Battalion, and a variety of other vendors. One small publishing company told me he earned more in sales from Friday at WBC than he did all last year at GenCon. I bought the usual bits such as stands for cardboard pieces, a bag of unusually shaped blocks (I already have lots of normally shaped blocks), and even a counter sheet to make some counters for "free-form Britannia in outer space", which I'd conceived at the convention.
There are higher proportions of women and minorities at a convention as you add other kinds of games such as RPGs and CCGs, and story-games of all types, along with other geek hobbies such as film and comics. GenCon seemed more crowded and yet more spread out (they added the indoor football (Colts) stadium). But it turned out that attendance was about the same as the previous year, about 61,000 unique individuals.
I don’t go to conventions to play games (though occasionally it happens). I figure I can play games a lot closer to home! I go to talk with people, especially game (and book) publishers. I did play four games this time, all of them my designs.
So I arranged, ahead of GenCon, to discuss a few of my games with publishers. Generally one makes an appointment, turns up at the booth (or other agreed place) at the agreed time, usually with a prototype, and you talk. Occasionally you might play the game with them, if it’s fairly short.
Where do these prearranged discussions take place? Sometimes we leave the enormous exhibit hall (which is crowded, rather loud, and rarely private) for an adjoining game hall, sitting at an empty table. I’ve even sat on the carpeted floor in the concourse outside the exhibit hall to show a game to a publisher. Occasionally a publisher has set up a (roofless) enclosed space as part of their booth, and the discussion takes place there. Or it may be at a table within a booth that’s open to the rest of the exhibit hall, so that we can actually play the game.
I don't attend the standard auction at either convention but I do look at the auction store, trying to find cheap sources of pieces. I couldn't find any copies of the boardgame Exalted (lots of Mediterranean galleys) but I did buy a copy of Risk Godstorm at WBC. (In case you haven't heard of it, and auction store involves people registering games with three prices which depend on the time of day, and these games are laid out on tables through which potential buyers circulate. Someone can buy at the current price or wait until later and hope that the game will still be available at a lower price.)
As you may know, GenCon applied "diversity" principles (that is, reverse immoral discrimination, not better than any other kind of immoral discrimination) to choose the Industry Insiders this year, with the result that I only recognized a couple of names. Add to that the problem that the Insider panels are added to the event list long after people have signed up for courses. When you find you've already signed up for something in the time slot, it's hard to get out of that one so you can sign up for another (there ought to be a single button to do that).
But this year I found I was sufficiently busy that I attended none of the seminars I'd signed up for, and only three altogether. One was really useful, one good, one a bust. None were Insider panels, for the second year in a row.
GenCon also made a subtle change that reduced free seminar attendance (most are free). They did not list, in the convention catalog distributed on site, the events that were already full. I can understand this for paying events, but for free events such as seminars, it was a mistake. People often attend seminars when they have a non-busy interval - that’s how I attended the three I made it to - and look in the catalog for what's available. The theoretically full seminars weren't there. Yet only perhaps a third of the people who sign up for a free seminar actually attend, and without the attendance of the browsers, overall attendance was down significantly.
I was told the smartphone app did list the theoretically full free ones, but many people rely on the catalog.
My not-officially-full seminar had twice the actual attendance of my two that were officially full.
When possible I like to hang out at one publisher’s booth during the day, to rest and to leave stuff I don’t want to carry around all the time. That didn’t happen at WBC this year, but at GenCon it was the booth of my book publisher, McFarland. There I met Karl-Heinz Roseman, who like Lisa Camp before him is a “good guy” interesting to talk with. He was especially busy this year, it seemed. My book sold out once again - does every year, a game design book at a big game convention? For some reason McFarland doesn’t “get it” and send more copies the next year . . .
I didn't see a single hex-and-counter wargame at GenCon. It's a story convention, a geek convention, only partly a game convention.
I'm not planning to attend GenCon this year. This is a combination of things. The two conventions are two weeks apart, and I prefer WBC. It's more relaxed, and I know a lot more of the people and have a better chance of getting games playtested. I'm afraid the 50th Anniversary of GenCon may make it more of a ratrace/zoo than it normally is. I'm also put off by the immoral reverse discrimination being used to select the Industry Insiders, though it doesn't seem to affect the rest of the convention. I used to go to some Insider panels, but the past two years I've attended none. I also begin to suspect that game designers and designs get lost in the crowd at GenCon, so I'm going to try to approach publishers separately.
My Patreon is at:
My thanks for the support from Rossan 78.
To me, games are models of something, not a medium for conveying "meaning" and "significance." If, say, the model is history, then the players may learn history (a form of meaning). And they can learn a variety of other things from games. But this is usually a byproduct of the interest in the game, not the purpose of the game.
My usual response to questions about games as art is, of course games are art (though not Art) - but most players don't care.
Perhaps "Artists" create Art largely for themselves, so that we (consumers) can think about something "meaningful" or "significant". I create games for other people. In most cases, the ultimate test is whether people like to play the game. If I can make a four to five hour game that people willingly play more than *five hundred* times (I have), then I've certainly succeeded.
Ian Bogost is quoted as saying, "Art is about changing the world; entertainment is about leisure." In that sense, virtually no games are art, they are entertainment, and in a short definition I would not try to reflect the (rare) possibilities for Art.
Big video games seem to be designed by committee, with all the problems of committees. In most cases, the person listed as "designer" has no more than (say) 25% influence on the result, the rest coming from the many other people involved (up to and including the publisher). Small video games offer a higher percentage, and tabletop games enable 80% to nearly 100%.
In cases where the designer can create the prototypes himself (tabletop games, simple video games), there is no formal writing involved other than to write the rules (tabletop). Yes, most designers write notes to begin with, and those notes guide the creation of prototypes, but the prototypes are the "meaning", not the writing.
Games existed long before they became software. Long descriptions of a game - game design documents - are only required as part of a large software project, and are not inherently necessary to creation of a game. The game must speak for itself, the descriptions do not.
Individuals can motivate themselves to create Art, not Product, when making their own game; but most people on a large video game project are not making *their* game, they're being paid to make someone else's game, so it's not surprising that Art doesn't come into their calculations. And when the entire team collectively "designs" the game, almost inevitably there is no thought about Art, as no one really feels authorship.
I rarely get around to posting individual links to my "Game Design" YouTube channel, so I decided to list the most recent five screencasts instead.
Special Powers Card Games (SPCG)
Special Powers Card Games (Magic:the Gathering, Munchkin, many others) is a category that attracts many aspiring designers. But designers should avoid CCGs, and look at other kinds of SPCG.
Charlemagne and "Yomi"
This is about two different and conrasting game playing styles. I use Charlemagne to represent "minimax" and "yomi" is a Japanese word adopted by David Sirlin to represent those who try to read the intentions and anticipate their opponents.
The Demise of "Favorite" Games
When I taught video game design classes I asked students about their favorite games. Turned out, many of them had no favorites, or could only pick the game they were currently playing. How different from many years ago. Here's why, which has a lot to do with changes in the nature of games and how people play them.
Why is it so hard to persuade people to playtest prototypes?
I've just added this video to my online course "Playtesting: the Heart of Game Design" (about 6.5 hours). Discount URL: https://www.udemy.com/game-playtesting/?couponCode=PT25
This is by far the most comprehensive discussion of game playtesting in the world, to my knowledge. Converted to words, it's the size of a small novel, in 64 parts, including examples of playtesting notes I've taken over the years.
Flexibility in Games
A seldom-discussed aspect of games - especially tabletop games - is their flexibility. Can the game be played to varying lengths, by varying numbers of players? Can players join in after the game has begun?
Tue Jan 10, 2017 10:19 pm
(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
One of the most worrisome aspects of the hard core video gamer culture is the ridiculous notion that being a "bad ass gamer" is both worthwhile and praiseworthy. Not even close. It is unproductive. It doesn't help your friends, your family, your community, your country, in any way. It contributes nothing to the world. It is purely empty egotism. Virtually anyone who plays video games four hours a day (on average) is not acting as an adult. (Which may be perfectly all right if that person is a youngster . . . or retired?)
A big reason why "the unwashed", those who are not into video games as a culture, tend to treat video games as "kid's stuff" is this childish egotism. So what? The "unwashed" includes a large fraction of the country, especially of older people, the people who lead opinion and who make financial decisions.
It would be easy to write an article titled "When will video gamers grow up?"
In tabletop games males generally LIKE women gamers, because TT games are social, and because TTers don't tie their self-worth/ego to being a "bad-ass gamer". (I met my wife in 1977 through D&D, when women gamers were much less common; two other people in that group of five married one another (though not attached when it began), and the last married my wife's best friend. All still married. Tabletop gaming is usually social.)
In video games we get a very vocal segment that appears to hate women, apparently seeing them as rivals. The root of #gamergate is males who measure their self-worth through gaming, afraid of female competition.
I am also convinced that a significant proportion of rabid Hilary-haters use a different standard than they would with any male political figure, because she's a woman. If she were a man, Trump wouldn't stand a chance.
Thu Sep 29, 2016 10:05 pm
Three separate topics in one post
Game Design: Not much to Show about the Process
As you may know I make hundreds of screencasts about game design, many of them in courses at https://www.udemy.com/user/drlewispulsipher/ (discounts at pulsiphergames.com). And I've written a book about game design as in my book http://www.amazon.com/Game-Design-Create-Tabletop-Finish/dp/...;qid=1459717843&sr=8-1&keywords=lewis+pulsipher
But game design goes on in the mind. There is little to show. I can show someone making a map for a game, I can show people talking about game design, I can talk about game design, I can show you a game being playtested: but I cannot show you game design, because it's internal, not external.
I think many people don't quite understand that.
Yet recently I’ve been made aware of the gamedev threat on Twitch TV, live streaming. Most of the streaming shows someone playing video games, often watched by thousands. Gamedev shows game developers crunching their code while occasionally answering questions from the viewers. Still not much to show, but it works for several dozen viewers! Yet it’s about programming much more than about game design.
Chinese history in a (cyclical) nutshell:
1. Anarchy reins, famine widespread, population plummets
2. Fairly stable "nations" (often called dynasties) established
3. Sooner or later, someone unites the land and becomes emperor (by Mandate of Heaven, of course); the land prospers
4. Population becomes too high for current agricultural technology, banditry erupts, anarchy reins, famine widespread, emperor/dynasty overthrown, population plummets - that is, back to 1.
Though it must be said, sometimes external invaders come into it, though usually the invaders succeed in bad times and fail in good times. Sometimes one dynasty was immediately succeeded by another, sometimes a period of warring states intervenes.
Hiring an F2P Game Designer
How to hire [F2P] Game Designers [for a small studio], by Ilya Eremeyev. http://gamasutra.com/blogs/IlyaEremeyev/20150720/248965/How_...
Detailed, some interesting points of view both in the kinds of designers, and in the crap he has to wade through.
I don’t know his company or even country, though the name is Slavic and English is not his first language.
Game designers are basically divided into 2 types: Game designers - storytellers and game designers-mathematics.
The first ones see their role in developing a “feeling”, writing a plot, quests, items descriptions and game universe backstory.
Second ones are all about balance design, economics, gameplay formulas and calculations.
In all conscience, most designers unite those skills but usually they focus on the one side more than on the other.
Usually, I hunt people with math\programming background and surely add this condition to our vacancy, which helps immediately cut off a half of unsuitable candidates and save some time.
After receiving “CVs”:
"First of all, I isolate infants, crazy dreamers, too juniors without any experience and strange guys who send me messages like ”Yo, wanna work in your company, I have a lot of ideas, but won’t share them with you, mail me dude” and instead of useful skills they point their love of anime and coffee."
[The noobs who haven’t figured out that game design does not equal ideas.]
[He gives them a seven- part test (questions but not answers included in the blog post) involving probability and knowledge of F2P games.]
"It is very important to catch a free-to-play haters, ideological pirates and peoples who stuck in the past. To understand how to make free-to-play games it is necessary to play and pay by yourself."
[As a college teacher, my colleagues and I were told by administration that we should not discuss a student (current or former) with any prospective employer unless we had only good things to say. Colleges nowadays are afraid of being sued. This fear-of-litigation tends to reduce the value of references and recommendations. Here's the author's take:]
"Recommendations are a very useful tool in hiring, which unfortunately [are] often ignored. It is great if a candidate can provide a few contacts of his previous employers but if not I do not hesitate to contact them by myself and get a feedback about candidate’s performance."
Tue Jun 28, 2016 12:32 am
(Originally appeared in my "expert Blog" on Gamasutra.)
You may have heard me in the past talk about the widespread displacement of consequence-based gaming by reward-based gaming. Party games, and to a lesser extent family games, have always been reward-based (you're rewarded for participation) rather than consequence-based (winning and losing is important, plus more), but hobby games were usually the latter. The change in hobby games started in the videogame world, where most single player games are puzzles rather than opposed games, and so as long as you are persistent - especially when you can use the video save games to try different things - sooner or later you'll solve the puzzle.
Puzzles have always been with us, and truth to tell, puzzles are more popular than games with the population as a whole.
But the move to reward-basis is far stronger now. Subscription games (MMOs) and now Free to Play games have been the real turning points, because the player must constantly be enticed to stay in the game long enough to begin spending money in the various ways that games extract/entice money from players, other than purchasing the game. So players are constantly rewarded, and practically all the consequences of their actions are good for them. Some players go so far as to blame the game if the player does not succeed.
I have maintained that if there are no consequences to your actions, you don't have a game, you have a playground, a toy. And in a typical video game with its save game capability, how can there ever be any consequences to your actions, because you can always go back to your save game and try again?
Tabletop games have always had consequences when you were playing with other people, because you can't go back and try again, you have to accept what happens, and that often involves losing the game. I think we're starting to get away from that now in some tabletop games, which are more reward-based than consequence-based.
I was recently at the East Coast Game Conference in Raleigh North Carolina, where the keynote speaker was Warren Spector, designer of Deus Ex, Epic Mickey, and other games.
Most video games have right and wrong choices, with the right one(s) leading to the planned ending (or several endings). As Spector pointed out, they tend to be black and white, right and wrong. Warren Spector wants player choices in (video) games to have consequences, but does not want the choices to be right or wrong, black or white. That's the difference between what he does, and a puzzle, where the right choice leads toward the always-correct solution. He wants to ask questions of the players and have the players grapple with possible answers, but he definitely doesn't want to answer those questions for the players. These questions are sometimes profound, as in what does it mean to be human (as opposed to a cyborg, robot, or alien).
Moreover, Spector wants the choices players select to make a difference in the outcomes of the game. There are great many video games where you can make different choices but in the end the consequences are the same, including many branching games because the branches ultimately go back to a single node regardless of which choice you made.
Of course, *good* tabletop games always have consequences to the player choices. It's built into the form with human opposition. These are consequences not only in success and failure, but in the outcomes of the game. For example, even though some people believe that my historical game Britannia is a heavily scripted game, you don't see two games go exactly the same way. Each player choice makes a difference in the outcome, and there are millions of possible outcomes.
At one point Spector asked the audience if any of them had noticed that the big splash screen at the end of one of the Mickey games was created based on all the decisions the player had made throughout the game, so that there were thousands of different possibilities. Then he wistfully answered his own question by saying probably no one had noticed.
Someone beat me to it and asked how a game can have consequences when it has save-games. Spector said he has no answer (though he had obviously been asked many times before), and that it's most unlikely that many games will be sold without saves (other than Rogue-likes). He did say that with one of his games (I think Deus Ex but it could've been Epic Mickey) he expected players to take one or another of the choices presented to them and run with it. Instead players would try each possibility and save the result, and when they had tried everything then they took the result they liked the most and went on from there. This is the epitome of lack of consequence. Yet, he said the player has paid their money and they can do what they want with the game. (In free to play games, then, how do you address this form of activity?)
Spector mentioned that in another of his games he allowed players to switch at will from one line of choices to another (I cannot recall whether it was character class or something else). And this had ruined the game, because it removed the consequences of so many choices.
In effect Spector was talking about an idealized form of a video game, rather than the form that's actually played by most game players these days, which is the save-and-try-again-until-you-like-it method. By and large I prefer the practical to the ideal in game design; fortunately, you can design a video game with Spector-style consequences, and that will work both for those who do the save-game tactics, and those who don't.
Consequences are a form of constraints, and contemporary players do not like constraints. They want to do whatever they want to do, as though they were on a playground or playing with toys. We've seen this occasionally for many decades, as it showed up early in Dungeons & Dragons. For example, character alignment was a form of constraint, and a great many players railed against alignment because it prevented them from doing whatever they wanted to do, from being what I call Chaotic Neutral Thugs, from behaving like they were in their own private playground, But now the attitude is much stronger, and there are many video games that pander to it in the name of retention (so that the player will spend money).
Games are inherently a bundle of constraints. But we can design on a spectrum from strong constraints (where there are consequences to player actions) to ones with weak constraints (players rewarded for participation).
Tabletop games used to have a tradition of open games, where you could play in whatever playstyle you wanted. That's been undermined by puzzles, where you have to conform to the always-correct solution. I call the puzzle-games, epitomized by very many Euro games, and most single-player videos, "closed games". Spector is recommending that developers make open games, not closed ones.
As do I. Unfortunately, closed games seem to be what the large majority of players want. And closed games are easier to design.
Wed May 11, 2016 10:25 pm
This is from a proposal that I wrote several years ago for a talk at a video game conference. I think it's worth publishing; if I live long enough, I'll deal with the topic as a whole in a book about "The Nature of Games".
"50 years of evolution in game design: from consequence-based to reward-based, from depth to variety, from earning something to being given something."
Games have changed in focus. "Follow the money" for further development:
Arcade games were designed so that the player would fail within a few minutes, then put in more money to try to beat their previous level of skill (and their score).
Home video games gradually shed that "failure" based orientation, because players have already paid their money up front. As the market became larger, with less "dedicated" players, it became harder to fail at video games.
MMOs changed to revenue through monthly subscriptions. This meant players had to be enticed to stay, rewarded rather than challenged. Games became so easy to play that "the grind" became the norm, doing the same things over and over to succeed, and a game became a desired destination, not a desirable journey.
Free-to-play games have exaggerated and continued this trend: players must be constantly rewarded so that they'll play the game long enough to begin to spend real money in it. Failure is no longer allowed. And players often expect to be told exactly what to do, as in many social network games.
We have moved from consequence-based games, where a player was responsible for choices and his actions, and expected to fail if he performed poorly, to reward-based games where players take no responsibility and expect to be rewarded merely for participation. There is no possibility of failure in typical video games, provided a player is sufficiently persistent. And many gamers play single-player video games with cheatsheet and Internet in hand to look up solutions: obstacles are circumvented by reference, rather than overcome by intellect.
Another way to express this is that "games" have gone from games to puzzles to short stories to cinema. Cinema is passive entertainment. Games are (have been) active entertainment.
Udemy.com is forcing all their online audiovisual courses into the $20-$50 price range, which means five of my courses will become more expensive. And my largest course ("Learning Game Design") will become private, not open to new students, as of April 4.
More information and discounts as pulsiphergames.com
Below is the text of the slides. There's more than that in the video, of course.
The “Demise” of the Board Game?
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
Well, it sounds good; but really, “severe diminishment” is more accurate
I’m talking about fewer traditional-style board games where the board records maneuver and geospatial relationships
Instead we have far more card games . . .
And lots more “board games” where the board is a status indicator-recorder, not a field for maneuver
Many of these games are essentially abstract despite having a “theme” tacked on
What are boards for in games?
Think of classic (pre-commercial) board games
The board is almost always used to record geospatial relationships
And the core of the game is maneuver (or occasionally, placement) of pieces in geospatial relationships
War is about maneuver and geospatial relationships, and classic games are essentially wargames
There’s placement rather than maneuver in Go, but the locations of the pieces in relation to one another is very important
It’s a strong tradition
Monopoly, oddly, provided a board and made movement (though not maneuver – you had no choice) and current location important in an industry where it isn't!
(It did provide a form of the real estate mantra: “the three most important things are location, location, location”)
Game of Life also provided location and movement unnecessarily
“Board” games that don’t need a board
In lots of so-called board games the board is a status recorder/indicator, where there is no maneuver, where geospatial relationships are not part of the game
In other words, games that are like card games with lots more record-keeping
The record-keeping could be done just as well in other ways
Player “layouts” are popular
Rise of Card Games
At our local university game club, we usually see far more card games than board games being played
Even if you don’t count Magic: the Gathering, which is one-third of the club
Card games rarely involve geospatial relationships, even less often maneuver
But cards are easier to transport than boards
Card games are (on average) simpler than board games
And offer the opportunity to put much of the rules on the cards, so players don’t need to read as much before playing
It’s also much easier to design a short game using cards than using a board
And short games are “where it’s at” these days
What used to be a filler (one hour) is now a relatively big game; fillers are 15-20 minutes
“5 minute games” are popular, though inevitably shallow
By the Numbers
"ICv2's study of the hobby game market estimates that retail for 2013 is now $700 million. Broken down by category, that covers collectible games ($450M), miniatures ($125M), board games ($75M), card games ($35M), and RPGs ($15M). " (Michael Tresca)
That “card game” category is odd, with best sellers I’ve never heard of
Look at the numbers. Games that are usually cards are at $485M
Less than a tenth
“Board games” includes all those status-indicator-board-games, as well as the maneuver board games
I think it includes all the games that are card games but spoken of and sold as board games, such as Munchkin, Bang!, Lost Cities, many more
So what fraction is still occupied by maneuver/spatial relationship games? Less than one tenth compared with card games?
I have no expectation that these trends will change, in fact I think they’ll “get worse” (from a board game player’s point of view)
It’s the Age of Instant Gratification, which cards serve better
Also it’s the Age of Convenience, and card games are more convenient
Finally, it’s the Age of Short Attention Spans, and card games can be shorter
I discuss this more in other screencasts, but will mention it here
The traditional boardgame was a game of Consequence. You had to take responsibility for what happened. You earned what you achieved
Modern games are moving toward a Reward basis. You are rewarded for participation. The game guides you. If a player fails, he blames the game (especially true in video games)
In this respect, board games are also “going away”
You see why I said “the demise of the board game?” Perhaps I should have said, “of new board games”, as the old ones are still going strong.
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