Greg's Design Blog

A collection of posts by game designer Gregory Carslaw, including mirrors of all of his blogs maintained for particular projects. A complete index of posts can be found here:
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Original Post

Lately I've been paying more attention to the language that people use in order to describe what goes on in games. In the rules a lot of games talk about you as a controller of some aspect of the game, you have a character and they run around killing monsters and taking loot. In play, players sometimes talk about themselves as being the thing that they're supposed to have control over. Phrases like "You've killed my character" morph into "You killed me!". This shift also signifies occasions on which people are most likely to lose control.

The occasional gamer-rage aside, this sort of transition is generally a good thing. It acts as an indication that players are emotionally invested in the game and opens them up to the experiences that the game has to offer. There's a tendency for emotion in games to be talked about as a zero sum thing, the thrill of victory or the crush of defeat, but I don't think that this is true for the best games. I've written before about the importance of making sure that losing is a fun and rewarding experience. When that's done right everyone who's playing is excited about something, even if it's exploding in the most spectacular way. I've seen a Galaxy Trucker player exalt in their success of managing to drift across the finish line in just a crew module and a blob of internal structure, an emotional experience that probably wouldn't have been nearly so sharp if they hadn't spent the whole game identifying the surviving crew member as themself.

I don't know if people who're getting invested in the game in this way play their best game or not. On the one hand it's a very focusing experience which could lead to clearer thinking. On the other hand it has a way of making people care about things that are not strictly related to victory, "I'm gonna kill that guy who got ten of my men!" rather than "I'm gonna kill that guy who's the greatest obstacle to my success." On occasion I have been guilty of deliberately imbuing my pieces with bits of narrative while chucking dice to try to get my opponents emotionally invested in suboptimal strategies. I was raised by a competition wargamer, but that's no excuse.

Anyway, I wanted to talk about this concept of emotional investment from a designers point of view and discuss how it might be used in creating games. The most obvious application is to be looking out for it and making decisions based on those observations. Playtesters are a notoriously slippery lot who don't always say what they mean (or mean what they felt) so it's good to have a wide toolkit for assessing how people are experiencing your games. It can be disheartening to view a playtest in which testers only said nice things as an indication that the game isn't working quite right, but I think it's necessary to making a great game to look at the emotional impact of the game beyond peoples academic thoughts. Otherwise you wind up making the game equivalent of a joke that makes you think "That's funny" instead of actually laughing.

(Note: The post up to this point was written at 9am while I was fresh faced and chipper. Then playtesters arrived. They just left, it's 11.20pm and I've decided to finish up the post. If the quality of the post slips after this note fatigue is to blame and also my exceptional devotion to testing my games until you get the very best product and in no way a post-playtest incident involving the musical commentary to Dr Horrible's Sing-Along Blog)

Where was I? Ah, uses of emotional investment beyond assessing playtest data. As I mentioned moments ago (Good work Greg. Flawless even. They'll never notice the seam) the level of investment a player shows influences their openness to emotional experiences. All games are fundamentally played for the sake of experiencing them (or experiencing friends through them) so this openness can be leveraged to heighten the experiences that the players are seeking.

I'm not going to talk too much about how games provoke emotion, since I've written about that before, but it's obvious that different games seek to promote different things and different gamers are seeking different things. A player may choose something like Braggart for the social aspects and storytelling, where another may play Magic to demonstrate systems mastery (though motivations vary) and a third might prefer Battlestar Galactica as a source of delicious paranoia (be sure to get five a day). The point is that investment has value.

So the trick for the designer lies into how to get people invested in your game. The main factors that determine this sort of thing are largely out of your hands, the actions of the other players, the setting of the game and any number of other things will play a bigger role in this than whatever you've put into the box - but your job is to make sure that your design makes it as easy as possible for these other factors to fall into place.

First impressions count for a lot, the appearance of the board, box and components set the mood for the game. There's also a good chance that whoever acts as a rules explainer will influence the other players so if your rules can convey the mood of your game and why people should care then you've got a better than average chance of it spreading to the rest of the group. With 404 I had to tone this down after a blind test in which one player was tripping over themselves trying to pass on the narrative in the book they forgot to tell anyone else the rules and the game became a bit of a mess, though most people have a more nuanced reaction.

The play itself will also be a huge factor. The speed of Brawl would convey the feeling of a fight without any narrative or pictures on the cards (though of course they help). I'm inspired by this to the point that I'm currently looking at making a microgame that draws some heavy inspiration from this (though is perhaps a slower paced more thoughtful version at a minute per turn instead of 40 seconds). Conversely the elegant simplicity of Go and its emergent mechanics create a different sort of emotional engagement, in which the depth of the game cannot be hidden by complexity or imagined away by blaming luck of the draw or unbalanced pieces. A player engaging with that game has to acknowledge the depths of what they do and people who become immersed experience an emotional reaction that's just as strong though very different. There are a lot of games that convey effective emotional impact through their mechanics and it is generally a consequence of those mechanics being extremely focused to a point that the players could not ignore it, even if all theme and narrative were stripped away.

It's possible, though difficult, to achieve this as a designer. A lot of games try and miss, especially in the horror genre (as distinct from games which merely use horror elements) where a game can fall entirely flat if it doesn't resonate properly with its audience. I'm not sure what specific advice I might offer for doing this, since I'm still a (very) long way from mastering it myself, but it's something interesting to think about and one more element to be looking out for.

Often you don't know how to do something until you've done it

So go out and try for something new today
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