The Menu Approach
Ponder this: We're playin' a game. It's got four classes: fighter, mage, cleric, thief.
I can play a viking raider, a samurai, a knight-errant, a barbarian, a hunter, etc. etc.; they're all covered by the "fighter" rules. Or, I can play an alchemist, witch, necromancer, etc. etc., all using the rules for "mage". They may not be differentiated by game mechanics but they're certainly differentiated in how I role-play them. And I don't just mean color, either; it could very much affect how I fit into the society of the game world, how other people react to me, how I approach problems, and even what sort of expertise I have outside of fighting. A samurai would be trained in classical poetry forms, a barbarian would not; they'd both know how to ride horses, the viking wouldn't, etc. That's just, like, duh! You don't need a rule that says that. You just need a halfway functional game group with a baseline level of creative collaboration.
But then, guess what! A new supplement comes out for our game, that adds a "samurai" class. He's got specific bonuses to poetry and horse-riding skills as well as feats that let him catch blades with his bare hands and cut through seven peasants with a single stroke! Suddenly, my prized samurai, made with the fighter rules, is now demoted to a generic fighter, because he's not part of the new 'samurai' class. In fact, if samurai is a class now, then viking and barbarian and knight ought to be classes too, so our fighters can't be vikings or barbarians or knights anymore. Fighters are just, um, fighters. I guess we can make up rules for viking and barbarian and knight classes -- but oh look! There's another supplement coming out next month with a "barbarian" class in it, so we shouldn't make up our own version, because it might be different from the "official" one.
And remember last week how you jumped on that fleeing thief, pinned him to the ground, wrestled the jewel out of his hands, and threw it back to the wizard? Yeah that was cool. But the new supplement has grapple rules! Jumping the thief last week *should* have been done with the grapple rules. From now on, no grappling without using the grapple rules, OK? Unfortunately the rules make most of us really bad at it unless we buy specific combat maneuver options during chargen. A whole range of fun, interesting, cinematic actions that we used to be able to do whenever we could convince the GM that it was dramatically appropriate have been rendered completely ineffective except to characters specifically pre-optimized for them.
I'm not saying that rules kill imagination -- not exactly. I'm a firm believer that some kinds of rules can be a tremendous aid to imagination. But the philosophy that says a game should list every possible option, like a menu, with a price and specific dice bonuses for each one: That kind of rules design kills creativity.
This is my biggest problem with the design philosophy of 3rd and 4th edition D&D. I understand it can be seductive for both designers and players; around 96-97 I went through a whole period of abortive homebrew designs that did the same thing -- tried to lay out a specific rule for every possible thing you might want to do. None of them ever got played beyond a couple of playtest fights.
I hope I'm not shocking anybody when I say there's no mystery why WotC era D&D has embraced this style of design: It creates demand for additional sets of official options, which enables WotC to sell more sourcebooks. There's nothing wrong with that; they're a business, they need to make money. They put out quality products with solid design that lots of people enjoy, so more power to them. I have defended WotC and their games in many arguments. But my perspective has changed, and I'm moving away from this type of gaming.
I guess I'm making an argument for rules that touch lightly on the fiction, and let me fill in the interesting details myself. Don't give me a menu -- give me a cutting board, a vegetable knife, and a saucepan. I want to do the cooking!
Do Role-Playing Games Need Social Conflict Mechanics?
The Oldest Argument in Role-Playing, Act I, Scene 4
Player: I convince the guard to let us in. I've got +11 to fast-talk!
(Player reaches for dice)
GM: Hold it. What do you *say*?
GM: To the guard. What do you say to the guard? He's all like "What business have an elf and a halfling in the keep at this hour? Identify yourselves!"
Player: Umm... "Out of my way! Your boss is under a spell and we gotta knock some sense into him!"
(Player rolls d20)
Player: Look, I got a 17! Let's see those guards beat a 28!
GM: No way are they going to let you in! You just said you were going to beat up their boss! That goes directly against their orders. "Get out of here, you scoundrels, before we decide to use you for ballista target practice."
Player: But the rules say that they have to make a Will save or else they do what I want!
GM (getting angry): I'm not rolling a Will save! You can't just game your way through everything without role-playing!
Player (getting angry): You're just trying to railroad me into solving some stupid puzzle to get into this keep, aren't you?
Does your favorite RPG have social conflict rules? E.g. a game mechanic for determining whether one character can convince another character to do what they say? If so, how do you use them? How do you decide when to use them and when not to use them? If there are no such rules, how do you decide what happens in such a situation?
This seemingly minor point can be very contentious. Thing is that to most people I've met, the right way to handle it is perfectly obvious... except to some, it's obvious one way, and to others, it's obvious the other way.
There's two schools of thought on this.
The Just Role-Play It Out! school. Some gamers and game designers I talk to look down on social-conflict rules. They believe that social-conflict scenes should be resolved purely by in-character arguments/threats/bribes/begging/trickery. Mechanics are at best an unwanted intrusion into such a scene, and at worst are part of a sinister plot to turn RPGs into board games by replacing all role-playing with dice. The natural extension of the just-role-play-it-out philosophy is that randomizers should be used only for things that can't be done by the players at the table -- such as fighting and other physical challenges.
The Your Character Is Not You! school points out that mechanics are useful. What if, in real life, a player is shy and not very persuasive, but they want to play a silver-tongued character? (Or vice-versa?) Letting the numbers on the character sheet influence the outcome of social conflicts makes it possible to play someone who is very different from yourself in personality, wit, etc., and have your character concept backed up by the authority of the game system. Besides, role-playing out the argument may sound good in theory, but sometimes neither player wants to give in, and then what do you do? A bad GM will use resolution-by-fiat to punish you any time you do something he didn't expect -- better to have an impartial rule to resolve the disagreement.
In Just Role-Play It Out style play, if there is any disagreement about whether a character should get their way or not, the GM decides. The GM can override any social mechanics used. In Your Character Is Not You! style play, if there is any disagreement, it is ultimately resolved by the game mechanics. The rules can override the GM. So another way of looking at the question is, "Does ultimate authority rest with the GM, or with the rules?" The answer to this question affects every aspect of the game, not just social conflict resolution.
How they influence different schools of game design and play
Old-school game designs (GURPS, for instance) typically have social conflict mechanics... often not-very-well developed and hidden away in some obscure chapter of the book where they can be easily ignored. (Old-school game designs usually have mechanics for everything, if you look hard enough!) That means it's the group's decision to use the social conflict mechanics or not. Such games support both Your Character Is Not You play and Just Role-Play It Out play.
(Want to have a totally dysfunctional gaming experience? Get together some people who assume you're playing one way, with some people who assume you're playing the other way, and then start playing without discussing the issue! Guaranteed arguments and hurt feelings all around!)
Indie-style game designs (PrimeTime Adventures, for instance) typically have a single conflict-resolution mechanic. A fistfight? Hide-and-seek? A public debate? You're trying to make somebody feel guilty about abandoning you? The game mechanics don't recognize any difference. You state your objective and what you're doing, then you invoke the game mechanics, and they tell you if you accomplished it or not. In some games of PTA, almost every conflict is social in nature. The indie school comes down pretty hard on the side of Your Character Is Not You and ultimate authority is with the rules.
In contrast, free-form, LARP, and online forum role-playing all come down very hard on the side of Just Role-Play It Out and ultimate authority is with the GM, for pretty obvious reasons. I have little experience with these styles of gaming so that's all I'll say about them.
My gaming experience and preferences
These days I play almost entirely indie games, so mostly I play with rules that are strongly Your character is not you oriented. I've been pondering how I feel about that.
When I'm GMing, I very much like having clear and fair game mechanics to fall back upon. I strongly dislike having to be sole arbiter of whether or not a PC's demands are persuasive enough for a given NPC to go along with. Sometimes I just can't make up my mind, you know? Then I just want to be able to roll some dice. (This is closely related to my previous article about my preference for conflict-res systems that allow me to play hard and fair while improvising.)
But at the same time, I think the concern of the Just Role-Play It school is justified. The danger of missing out on role-play because it's been replaced with mechanics is a real danger.
Indie-style game designs tend to have clear rules and procedures that cover everything you do in play. That's great! It makes them user-friendly and keeps a lot of frustration out of my gaming. But it's got a dark side: A game where the rules and procedures are too clear and cover every case too well is a game that can be played without reference to the fiction. D&D 4th edition combat is like this -- you can play it as "I move here. I use this ability against this enemy. Roll to hit. Roll damage..." It's board-gaming, or war-gaming. It's not role-playing, at least not by my definition.
In an indie game with a really well-developed social-conflict system, you can war-game a social interaction! You could play Dogs in the Vineyard and say "OK, I'm going to convince the sorceror to repent and seek God's forgiveness." and then roll dice, raise, see, block, take blows, reverse blows, escalate, and finally win or lose, all purely on a mechanical level, without role-playing what your character says or does. You "can" do this in the sense of "The game won't completely fall apart if you do", but dear gods it would Suck So Bad! You'd be missing out on everything that makes the game fun. You'd be creating the outline of a story instead of the story itself. You'd be creating crappy fiction.
So, I guess my advice is: don't do that!
Just because you can do something via the game rules doesn't mean you should. If the game rules don't force you to role-play, then you have to police yourself. You gotta have some discipline. I'd go so far as to say one of the key skills you need to develop when playing Your Character is Not You style: The discipline of not rushing into the conflict mechanics too soon.
My current group has had some problems with this in the past. In Primetime Adventures, Spirit of the Century, and in Polaris, whenever we activated the conflict mechanics too fast, the result was lackluster. It played more like a synopsis of a cool scene than the cool scene itself. (The conflict mechanics are very... tempting in these games. Especially Polaris, because the way you resolve conflicts is just so cool!) It was much better when we forced ourselves to slow down and role-play, add details and let the scene develop more before we engaged mechanics. You know the rule in writing that says "Show, don't tell"? That.
"I demand the guards let us in. Conflict! If I win, they let us in. If I lose, they apprehend us. Roll! I win! They must have seen the steely glint in my eye and known not to mess with me. We go on into the keep..."
That's playing the synopsis of the scene. And maybe that's OK, if the scene wasn't very important. But if it wasn't important, why were you playing it?
"We put George on a makeshift stretcher, right? He moans and stuff like he's badly wounded. The rest of us carry him towards the gate, and when the guards stop us I say 'Have you no decency? This man is in desperate need of a doctor! If you don't let us in, it will be your fault when he dies!' I look the guard straight in the eye and glare, like I'm daring him to stop me."
Now we're playing the scene, not just the synopsis.
We haven't gotten to the conflict mechanics yet. Maybe we'll engage them -- maybe we won't. Maybe my character's actions and words are just so persuasive that you don't feel like challenging me: You role-play the guards being persuaded, and we continue. If you think the guards are not persuaded, then you role-play them not being persuaded. Maybe you make a counter-threat, and then I decide whether to keep arguing or admit failure and try something else. If neither side gives, and the argument goes on to the point where it would be tedious to keep playing it, only then should somebody say "Hey guys, I think we should do this as a social conflict." Then we go to the game mechanics.
Thus, the persuasiveness of your fictional statements AND the rules of the game both have a chance to influence the outcome.
The Override Button: why every RPG needs it
Subtle but important point, above: There has to be the option to use or not to use the conflict rules, or to modify them, depending on human judgement about the state of the fiction. That option is what allows fictional statements to influence game-mechanical outcomes. It creates the space wherein role-playing happens. Every RPG needs this kind of "override button", because without some way for fiction to influence game mechanics, you have a board-game or war-game. (Or computer RPG.) The override button doesn't need to be pressed every time -- but the option to press it must exist.
Different games implement the override button in different ways. In Dogs in the Vineyard, for instance, either side of the conflict has the option to Give instead of Seeing a Raise. Giving usually means that you're so impressed by your opponent's Raise that you lose the will to keep the conflct going. In fact, conflicts where that happened are some of the most memorable scenes in my Dogs experience, because they involved Raises that were so emotionally powerful.
In almost every traditional RPG design, the GM has the ability to put arbitrary modifiers on die rolls depending on how likely they think a plan is to work. This serves the same function: Human interpretation of the fiction has the power to influence the game mechanics. Traditional RPG designs have lots of override buttons randomly sticking out here and there; often they have a great big override button on page one that says "Rule Zero: the GM can ignore any rules they want for the sake of the fiction."
PrimeTime Adventures is an interesting case. In PTA, the number of cards I draw is determined by my traits, my screen presence, and how much fanmail I spend. I don't get bonus cards for persuasive role-playing! Therefore, how well I role-play my character's argument has absolutely no effect on my chances of success. There is human judgement, though: it's in deciding whether the guards are a conflict or not. If I'm persuasive enough, the Producer may decide that the guards wave me through. That's why I say there has to be the option of when to use the conflict rules -- it's the only override button that PTA has. In games like PTA, where the rules are very concrete, it's extra important to discipline yourself to play to the fiction, and not just play to the rules.
I've wandered rather far away from the original question of social conflict mechanics, haven't I? Sorry, I've got a tendency to ramble. But really there's no way to answer the social conflict mechanics question without getting into all this stuff about the relationship between mechanics, fiction, and authority. There's some really hairy philosophical questions lurking in that relationship, and much potential for game-ruining disagreements. I've barely scratched the surface in this post.
But anyway, to answer the original question, I guess this is my preferred compromise for social mechanics -- and for everything else:
Rules have ultimate authority, but they include override buttons to allow human interpretation of the fiction.
Random Landmass Generator
It assigns random heights to each point on the map, then smooths them out by repeatedly averaging each point with its neighbors, then makes everything above a certain height land and everything below that point water.
The four settings you can tweak are:
- Volcanic activity: the number and severity of random events that put randomly high spikes (or deep pits) in random locations around the map. Higher volcanic activity makes a map with more and bigger "clumps", for lack of a better term.
- Ruggedness: the amount of random variation added to every point on the map in addition to the volcanic activity. Higher ruggedness tends to make more mountains and less plains.
- Erosion: the number of times the averaging algorithm is run. Higher erosion means each point will be more like its neighbors, so smoother coastlines and less sudden changes in height.
- Sea Level: where the cutoff is between land and water; higher sea level means less connected landmass and more isolated islands.
All this is extremely unrealistic, of course. Real mountain ranges tend to be more linear, because they form along tectonic plate boundaries, whereas mine are more clumpy. Also my planet is a torus, not a sphere (you'll notice it wraps around east-to-west and north-to-south). Also it's lacking rivers, climactic zones, vegetation, etc. But play around with the settings and see if you get a map you like! (At which point you'll have to save a screenshot, since there's no other save feature at the moment.)
[Edit: Updated! I added a fifth parameter for tweaking, Fault Lines. It makes large-scale linear features, which add some backbone to the eventual continents.]
My friends write RPGs!
1. Ben Lehman has sent The Drifter's Escape off to the printers. This is a game he's been working on for as long as I've known him. It's about a homeless drifter wandering across America. One player is The Drifter, and the other players are either The Devil, or The Man. (You know, The Man who is always keeping The Drifter down.) He's releasing it as a book which is a combination of RPG and short-story collection. (Ben, correct me if I'm misrepresenting any of this.)
2. Ben Lehman has also released a game called High Quality Role-Playing as a free download. It's an extremely old-school (i.e. permanent death is one die roll away), low-fantasy world where there are heroes... but you don't play one of them. You play a random joe schmoe, like a beggar or a blacksmith or a peasant, and you're pretty much in way over your head.
3. Ewen Cluney (it's pronounced like "Aaron"), who worked on translating the Maid RPG to English, is now working on a translation of another Japanese tabletop RPG by the same author. It's called Yuuyake Koyake and it's a heartwarming, non-violent game where you play shapeshifting animal spirits who help rural townspeople with their problems.
4. Ewen is also working on two RPGs of his own design: one is called Raspberry Heaven and is a Japanese high-school girls slice-of-life game ala Azumanga Daioh. I got to playtest it with him earlier this summer. I played a painfully introverted and sickly girl who was the world's biggest fan of Dragon Ash. I could feel the potential there, but I felt like the game needs more structure so that the players aren't just floundering. (I ought to do a whole blog post about this.)
5. The other is called Slime Story. You play a jaded suburban teenager who kills stereotypical RPG cannon-fodder monsters (slimes and stuff) as a part-time job, for spending money. (They come through a dimensional portal.) Ewen, like I said to Ben: Correct me if I'm getting any of this wrong.
6. Jake Alley, who I've been designing and playing games with since I was a wee lad, is doing a gaming podcast now. Woot!
7. I haven't heard any updates about these lately, but I know Jake is working on some follow-ups to Glistening Chests based on the same philosophy of tightly genre-focused trope-parodying mechanics. He's got one in the works for horror movies, and another for cheesy Voltron-esque cartoons. (Jake, like I said to Ewen and Ben: correct me if I'm wrong. Also, if you've got links to any info about these projects, let me have 'em!)
A tool for tabletop game designers
I've started working on a web application which will be a sort of all-purpose tabletop game emulator, aimed at making playtesting easier for my many friends who are game designers. It's based on an idea that Googleshng described in great detail here: The Toybox Project.
It's not ready to show yet, but I hit the first major milestone on the coding last night so I'm pretty excited to talk about it.
The idea is that if you want to playtest a game you're working on, you can go to my website, create a private room, and get a URL that you can invite your friends to. All the people who are looking at the same URL are part of the game room. It's like Etherpad but for gaming instead of text editing.
In the game room, there's a shared board area where anybody can create pieces and move them around, and everyone else instantly sees the changes. You'll be able to upload, or link to, your own graphics to use as pieces or as a background image (i.e. a board), or choose from a selection of standard pieces (chess pieces, go stones, playing cards, toy soldiers and tanks, etc. etc.)
There will also have to be a chat area, a die roller (including Fudge dice), the ability to draw or type words directly onto the board area and then wipe it clean again, and some way of simulating shuffling/drawing from a deck of cards, including custom cards. There will also have to be a private area where players can move objects to hide them from public view, to support games with hidden information. Finally there will need to be a way to save and restore game states.
The computer won't enforce any rules or game mechanics. It's up to the players to pay attention to whether they're playing right or not, same as with a real tabletop game. This keeps the code simple and makes it possible for users to create virtual versions of their game setup without having to do any programming.
I'll put up a link once it's a little more functional. If you're interested in this project, leave a comment to let me know what other features would make it useful for you.
On Saturday my game group got together, and we weren't sure what to play since we didn't have tons of enthusiasm for continuing In A Wicked Age. I threw out a bunch of random suggestions, mostly stuff I own but haven't played yet.
We ended up playing Capes, a superhero game which seems to be sadly little-known and little-loved even by the standards of indie games. (Come on, how can you not love a game that has a literal laser-shark on the cover?) I've had it on my shelf unplayed since I first got into indie RPGs in early 2007.
It's a shame Capes isn't better known, cuz it turns out to be both 1. really fun, and 2. based on a completely different design philosophy from most indie RPGs, one which to my knowledge hasn't been explored much since then. That makes it greatly worth playing for anybody who either designs RPGs or who is just interested in how they work.
What is this crazy design philosophy? Well, Capes is:
- GM-less, with narration authority, plot responsibilities, and playing of villains and secondary characters distributed evenly between all players.
- Driven by the game mechanics
- Lacking scenario creation rules, explicit story-structuring or pacing rules, or front-loaded premise rules of the type found in many indie games.
- Competitive: the book encourages players to try their best to beat each other, includes a "Strategy and Tactics" chapter, and advises that if you can find a rules loophole that makes you more effective, you should exploit it as much as possible! (Yes, it's the exact opposite of the advice you're used to reading in RPG books. Rather refreshing actually.)
Given all that, you'd probably think that Capes must be more like a board game than a role-playing game, what with everybody trying their hardest to beat each other using whatever game mechanics are legal. You'd think that it would be impossible to generate a story this way, or anything other than a long fight scene. But you'd be wrong, because the stroke of insane genius in the design of Capes is that to earn the Inspirations and Story Tokens that you need to advance your agenda as a player, you need to get other players to put a lot of chits and dice on an index card representing a conflict. And to do that you need to make the conflict something that they care a lot about winning. Which means that playing to win requires figuring out what sort of conflicts capture the interest of the other players.
Specifically, you only get Story Tokens when your character loses a conflict on which another player has staked Debt. One of the best ways to do this is to play a villain, come up with a dastardly plan that the heroes will do anything to stop, bid it up really high, and then let your character lose it on the last round.
So as I understand it, the design goal of Capes to be a competitive game which, when played with optimal strategy, produces an engaging genre-appropriate story as a side-effect. That' s a bold statement. I'll have to play it a little more before I can decide whether it's successful or not, but I'm having trouble thinking of another game that even really tries to do such a thing.
One potential pitfall I can see is that the mechanical and strategic aspects of the game would still function even if you describe the game events in a perfunctory way, which would make a story that was bland and lacking in details, so it's going to require some discipline to Not Do That. This is a pitfall in any RPG that has really solidly functional mechanics - the temptation to play the mechanics and ignore the fiction. There are some rules in Capes to counteract this, like the ones that say you must have appropriate fictional justification to use a Power, use an Inspiration, or stake debt from a Drive. But with no GM, there's no one person to act as creative veto over inappropriate or lame contributions. Instead, everybody has to police themselves and each other. When we play again, I'm going to pay very close attention to how this mutual policing works or fails to work and what effect that has on the fiction.
Another quibble I have is that the Capes book is not a very good teaching text. None of us had played it before, and I had read the rules once back in 2007, so we had to figure it all out from the book as we went along. It took us quite a while to figure out what we were doing, and it didn't help that the book is more technical manual than a tutorial. I felt a little like I was trying to learn a program's interface by reading its source code. The author does attempt to ease the learning curve with a Flash-based demo of a round of play, but that's not much help when you're at the game table away from the computer.
Moving on to stuff that I really liked...
The mechanical rules, once we had them figured out, are just inherently fun. Rounds go by quickly, and like a good board game it keeps you constantly considering your options, looking for openings, planning moves, etc.
Because GM duties are shared by all players, you don't play the same character all the time; at the start of each scene you choose a character you'll play for that scene. That means sometimes you'll play heroes, sometimes villains, and sometimes "NPCs" like journalists, scientists, and generals. I enjoy games with this kind of variety. Of course you have to have a way to come up with interesting characters on the spot when the plot demands it.
Luckily Capes has an ingenious and quick character-creation system. I love this system; it's tons of fun. Printing out the free PDF on the creator's website gives you a bunch of pre-generated Powersets, which are left halves of character sheets, and a bunch of pre-generated Personality Types, which are right halves of character sheets. You pick one of each, cut them out and tape them together, and then all you have to do is fill in a few numbers and pick a name and you're good to go.
The pre-gens are great for quickly coming up with minor characters on the fly; if you're stuck for ideas you can just mix-and-match stuff randomly and see what it sparks in your imagination. There's also a free-form character creation if you have more time and want more flexibility, but to be honest the pre-gens do such a good job of covering all the superhero archetypes that you don't need much else even for your major characters. (It's pretty fun to go through the options and see how you would create famous characters in this system. Animal Avatar + Angsty Nice Guy = Spiderman. Gadgeteer + Trauma Survivor = Batman. Godling + Crusader = Superman. Brick + Curmudgeon = The Thing. And so on.)
I put together Robot + Ingenue to make Meteotron, an advanced transforming robot from Proxima Centauri, alias "Acura Integra" (because it assumed that cars were the dominant form of life, natch). Its memory was wiped out when it crash landed on Earth so it doesn't know its true purpose.
The way you assign numbers to your abilities matters a lot. Like, I had a 2 in "Swarms of Missiles" and my only 5 was in "Trusting". So yeah, I can fire swarms of missiles all day long, but they're not all that effective. When I'm in a really desperate situation and I need that 5, I have to work out some way to play it with Trusting. Which led to a lot of fun roleplaying like "I know you're not really a bad person deep down inside, Dr. Inevitable! You wouldn't really fire that death ray at Capitol City when you have friends there! It must be that you've just got a... a malfunction in your brain hardware! Come back to Earth with me and I'll help you get it fixed!"
(You can see how playing a Robot Ingenue with a 2 in Trusting and a 5 in "Swarms of Missiles" would have been a completely different experience from playing Acura Integra, even though they're both made with the same pregen choices.)
I'm very much looking forward to playing again next week, because I bet it will go much smoother now that we're familiar with the system, and plus I have a great idea for a tragic villain: a Guilt-Ridden Mind-Controller named The Utopian who is tormented with constant shame over the imperfections of humanity and obsessed with taking over people's lives in order to "purge them of their sins".
I was thinking about how to design an RPG resolution system that takes into account the concrete fictional details of the situation without getting bogged down in complex mechanics or, like, tables of modifiers for everything.
Most RPG resolution systems boil down to some variant of "I roll higher than you, I get my way; you roll higher than me, you get your way". Or maybe low is good, maybe it's against fixed target numbers or it's a dice pool or based on playing cards or whatever. I don't really care. They're all some kind of numerical comparison to find out whether you got your way or not.
And the problem is that either you need a lot of complicated rules plus GM judgment calls for turning the specific fictional details into numerical modifiers (the traditional RPG design way, think situation modifiers in D&D combat) or you just compare numbers based on completely abstract game mechanics to find out who won and then you narrate a fictional justification for it (the story-games way, think PTA). The second way tends to be much more playable but it has the major drawback of not depending on the state of the fiction and therefore leading to somewhat abstract or detached narration.
So what if we skip numbers altogether? What if we have something like a deck of tarot cards, or a pile of fortune cookies - a randomizable set of qualitative ideas or concepts, not numbers. The idea is not to consult them to say "Did I do good or bad?" but rather consult them to say "What factor is the decisive factor in our situation?"
So, like, imagine my character is having a political debate with yours. We're just freeforming it out - I make all my arguments, you make all your arguments, etc. Eventually we get to the point where if we keep arguing we'll just be repeating ourselves, so we decide it's time to let the resolution system step in and tell us who won. Instead of rolling off, we draw a fortune cookie. Maybe it says something like:
"Age and treachery always triumph over youth and beauty"
This tells us what the decisive factor is. Now we argue over who the decisive factor helps. If one of our characters is a lot more experienced than the other, the advantage goes to that charcter. If one of us has been roleplaying his guy as treacherous, advantage to that character. Alternately, if one of us has been roleplaying his guy as depending on youth and beauty to make people like him, disadvantage to that character.
If you're saying "That's totally ambiguous, it doesn't resolve the conflict at all, it just starts a bunch of new arguments" then you are exactly right. That's the whole point! It requires you to engage with the details of the fiction in order to decide how to interpret the fortune cookie. The arguments over "who's been the most treacherous" could be the most interesting part of the game. (I am assuming here that you're not playing with jerks.)
To make it into a functional game system, maybe you designate one person the referee, or maybe you just ask a player who doesn't have a character in the conflict to read the omen, or whatever. Maybe if you can't figure out how the fortune applies you do another round of freeform and then draw another fortune. Mainly you make it so that whoever is reading the omen doesn't have conflicts of interest, so they can just focus on interpreting it fairly.
Another example: We're having a swordfight, we're narrating it freeform, then we get to the decisive blow, and...
"Your hard work will get payoff today."
If it's previously been established that my guy practices his swordfighting technique a lot, then this is obvious: his hard work gets a payoff in the form of winning the fight. On the other hand, if my "hard work" has been in the form of trying to get this girl to like me. What then? Well, obviously, she shows up in the middle of the fight (...and tries to rush to my aid, which is a dumb thing to do because then my opponent can grab her and threaten to kill her unless I surrender...) In that case, the message might not be a resolution at all: it might be an escalation or complication of the conflict. It's all context-dependent.
The game designer would have a lot of work to do in coming up with a good list of fortunes - ones which have a lot of interesting interpretations in a variety of situations, not lame or boring ones, not ones that are too obvious or too inscrutable. Maybe different sets of fortunes for different types of conflict - one for physical combat, one for persuasion, one for tests of skill or knowledge, etc.
This game would reward system knowledge, because a smart player who knows what sort of fortunes are in each set can set themself up to win by fictional positioning. Like, if you know the Combat pile has a lot of fortune cookies that reward preparation ("You shall reap what you sow"), you can have your character do stuff to be crazy prepared for an upcoming fight. But your preparation does you no good if the fortune that you open is some hippie nonsense about passion and inspiration.
Does anybody know of any games that exist already that work like this?
Play This Thing
I've got a new favorite website. It's called Play This Thing. It's reviews and criticism of "non-mainstream" games: freeware computer games made by hobbyists (like Cave Story and Dwarf Fortress); retrogames and ROM hacks (like Megaman vs. Ghosts and Goblins); artsy conceptual "message" games (like Gravitation); modern interactive fiction (that is less about solving puzzles and more about, um interacting with fiction) like The Baron; Euro-boardgames (like Race for the Galaxy) and even indie tabletop RPGs (like My Life with Master).
This site gets me excited for four reasons.
First of all, I'm excited that all of the above are being covered in one place, because I've long felt there's a similarity between the indie RPG design movement and the modern noncommercial IF movement, for example; they are the same spirit, separated only by an incidental difference in medium, and Play This Thing brings them together again under one banner, making the connection explicit.
Second, I'm excited to find a gateway to an underground where simple, innovative game design lives on. I used to be a hardcore gamer in the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, but in the late 90s / Playstation 1 era I started drifting away from video games; either they were evolving in a direction I didn't want to go in (e.g. adventure games died, FPS became the dominant genre of action game) or maybe because my tastes were changing and video games weren't changing with them (you can only attack/attack/heal/use fire spell on ice-themed boss/buy better sword/watch cutscene/repeat so many times before you realize Japanese console RPGs are a colossal waste of time).
Basically I dropped out of video games when video games started turning into Hollywood: every game had to be this huge slick production with 3-d graphics and voice acting and cutscenes, with an interface that requires a tutorial to master, a story full of sturm und drang, and gameplay consisting of incremental mechanical tweaks on an established genre.
What happened to simple games, games where you can get started, learn to play, and get to the meat within the first thirty seconds? What happened to games with a sense of humor and a cartoony visual style? Most of all what happened to innovation in gameplay, games based on presenting new gameplay concepts and creating novel experiences?* For the most part they went away when game development changed from something done by a team of 1-5 people to something done by a team of hundreds with a million dollar budget. Just like Hollywood, the space for individual creativity got squeezed out and blockbuster sequels became the safe thing to do.
(* To be fair, these things still have a niche on handheld consoles like the Nintendo DS, and a Katamari Damacy still comes along once in a while, but still.)
Third, I'm excited because the games featured on Play This Thing represent a veritable Cambrian Explosion of new ideas and contents that I've never encountered before. A game about bringing peace to Israel and Palestine? Games focusing on social interaction instead of combat? Games that are all about getting different endings depending on moral choices you make for your character? Games that use game mechanics as metaphors to express the author's views about the human condition? Sure, a lot of the new ideas are kind of gimmicky (a game where death is permanent - once you die you can never play the game again, cuz you're dead) but that's OK; a creatively bankrupt mainstream demands a vibrant indie scene, and a vibrant indie scene demands that we indulge people in some high-concept pretentiousness and some creative dead ends as the price for discovering the good stuff.
Fourth, I'm excited because I could totally make a game like one of these. I've got the tools, I've got the know-how, I've got the ideas, and now I've got the inspiration. All I need is a little free time...
Beneath an Alien Sky: Inspirations
There's an online game I want to make. As a working title, let's call it "Beneath an Alien Sky". (Bonus points: spot the reference.)
The details will come in a future post. This post is my Inspirations.
Visual Design and Aesthetics:
(Bonus points: What do these have in common, setting-wise?)
(Bonus points: What do these have in common, gameplay-wise?)
The open web is just one of many game development platforms, but it is the only platform where nothing comes between my game and the people who want to play it. - Me, Why You Should Care About The Open Web part 2
There was no mysterious old man sending them on quests. No overarching plot, just an overarching environment. - Ben Robbins, Grand Experiments: West Marches
Without contrived situations to force the PCs into action, the PCs need to be more pro-active. - John H. Kim, Threefold Simulationism Explained
Is there an expected, future metagame payoff, or is the journey really its own reward? Is Simulationist play what you want, or is it what you think you must do in order, one day, to get what you want? - Ron Edwards, The Right to Dream
A Tale in the Desert has been described as a social experiment, and that description is startlingly accurate. - Ron Dulin, Gamespot Review
A group of people interacting with one another will exhibit behaviors that cannot be predicted by examining the individuals in isolation, peculiarly social effects like flaming and trolling or concerns about trust and reputation. - Clay Shirkey, Social Software and the Politics of Groups
A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy - Clay Shirkey
One reason why I’m fascinated with MMOs is because it seems that game mechanics also change how communities and individuals behave. - Nick Yee, The Daedalus Project: Social Architectures in MMOs
By comparing the game mechanics of EverQuest (EQ) and Dark Age of Camelot (DAOC), this essay explores how these game mechanics can shape the relationships that form in MMORPGs. - Nick Yee, The Daedalus Project: Engineering Relationships
I want the rules to create a powerful expectation between us - part of our unity of interest - that I will hurt your character. - Vincent Baker, Roleplaying Theory: Hardcore
My goal today is to talk about the next level of software design issues, after you've got the UI right: designing the social interface. - Joel Spolsky, Not Just Usability
Wikipedia: Replies to Common Objections
Beneath an Alien Sky: First attempt at sprite artwork
Here's my attempt at making some character artwork in a 16-bit sprite style for "Beneath an Alien Sky". Done from scratch by hand in Graphic Converter, not really based on anything except the general aesthetics I tried to lay out in my previous post. Shown here at 4x the size it would appear in-game.
She's, like, a Space Marine, or some other kind of Macho Space Babe. I dunno exactly what the character classes are in this game yet.
I also don't know how she intends to fit that hairdo inside that helmet, but meh, it's anime, what are you gonna do. Speaking of helmets, I'm thinking that player characters have both an in-spacesuit display mode used when they're out on the planet surface, and an out-of-spacesuit display mode when they're inside a pressurized environment (i.e. a "town").
She's got a darker skin tone because I'm trying to go against the prevailing whiteness of visual science fiction media. (e.g., the whitewashing of Wizard of Earthsea in the TV version.) Hopefully by whatever futuristic year this game is set in, the concept of race as a way to divide up humanity has dissappeared outside of history books; to convey that without being all heavy-handed and preachey about it, I plan to make white people a minority with most people being various shades of brown (as is already the case if you look at Earth as a whole!) and just have that be so normal that nobody bothers mentioning it. Not that this is going to be a utopia or anything; the future is going to have plenty of problems, just hopefully they're different problems.
While I'm at it, you know, Islam is arguably the fastest growing religion in the world, so it would be interesting to make the future humanity primarily Muslim. Maybe it's some kind of semi-secularized "Reformation Islam" interpretation invented in the 22nd century that leaves behind the more vehement tendencies and is more willing to syncretize with other religions and cultures.
And what's the dominant language? Some kind of Spanish/English/Chinese pidgin? Fun times.
Back on the original topic of this post... I welcome criticism on how to improve my sprite artwork!
Hatred for MMORPGs gives me design inspiration
These are some thoughts about how I want to design the core gameplay for Beneath An Alien Sky, inspired by all the things that suck in the current crop of online games and how I think they could be fixed.
Why I hate MMORPGs, 1: The core gameplay - kill monster, get money, buy bigger sword, kill bigger monster, repeat - is Nethack/Rogue with 2009 graphics. It gives a certain pseudo-satisfaction by providing a false sense of achievement, but I see it as essentially time-wasting filler put in to make sure players don't burn through the content too quickly.
Any game where people try to write bots to play their characters for them is obviously a game that is having trouble being fun.
How I'd do it differently: I'd make the core gameplay about building, economy, and development, like a Civ-style game, rather than about monster-slaying. I think this is a better basis for designing a strategy game. You build something persistent, something bigger than your single character, that you manage and expand over time; maybe a town, maybe a corporation or something. Meanwhile you also take your character out for exploration to find things that you need to grow your enterprise, or trade with other players to get them.
In addition to being inherently more interesting than slaughtering mobs, this opens up relatively unexplored types of gameplay. Most strategy/simulation games have only single player per empire. What happens when your buildings butt up against the buildings of another player who is nominally on the same side? The rules make them interact in ways which could be mutually beneficial, mutually harmful, or which benefit one player at the expense of the other; being part of the same "empire", you have shared interests, but you're also competing for resources. There's ample incentive to negotiate. Plus, what if empire-wide strategic decisions were made by voting? This makes the social game very, very important.
Why I hate MMORPGs, 2: The exponential power curve. It's a treadmill (at best you keep parity with the power level of the monsters, meaning you haven't gained anything). It means that newbies can never compete with high-level characters, and in fact can't even go to the same zones as the high-level characters without getting slaughtered. Essentially it's social stratification based on length-of-time-playing-the-game.
How I'd do it differently: Players who have been playing a while already have an advantage in terms of knowledge of the game world, system mastery, and social connectedness. No need to give them an overwhelming game-mechanical advantage on top of that. Taking out the exponential power curve forces us to find other ways to reward players. If the gameplay is mainly Civ-style, maybe the rewards are all in terms of resources or additional options for building your towns. If it's more character focused, maybe you get increased ability to customize your character but only underneath a fixed power-level cap. What if rewards are explicitly social, like having your character's profile page ranked higher so other players are more likely to read about you and seek out contact with you? What about if they're political, like gaining the ability to make decisions that affect more and more of the virtual society? What if they're GM / game-designer rights, like getting to design new items/monsters/spells, or getting a chunk of the world in which to create your own dungeons for other players to explore?
Why I hate MMORPGs, 3: In the quest to remove frustration, the genre has evolved from games where player-killing was rampant and death severely penalized (frustrating, no fun) to games where player-killing is restricted certain zones and death is mostly toothless (boring, no challenge, no freedom for people to play meaningfully evil characters).
How I'd do it differently: Let's go all the way and make character death permanent. That's right: No revive spells, baby. You die, you roll up a new character. You get to write the epitaph that goes on your first character's tombstone as a warning to others. Plan your strategy better next time!
Are would-be player-killers still willing to attack newbies when the risk to them (losing a character they spent a long time building up) is far worse than the risk to the newbie (losing a character they just made)? Remember, there's no exponential power curve, so the long-time character doesn't have an overwhelming advantage.
Why I hate MMORPGs, 4: Players are not allowed to have any impact on the game world. An NPC can give you a quest and tell you the quest is important, but after you do it, nothing has changed, and the same NPC is offering the same quest to the next player. Nothing ever changes (unless the developers add an expansion pack or run a server-wide event; then everything changes at once, and the players still have no impact on it.)
How I'd do it differently: All player actions have a permanent effect on the game world - from digging a hole or building a farm to inventing a technology or driving a species extinct. Seeing how these changes interact and how the game world evolves in response to them is the primary point of play. You'd better think about what you do, because it has repercussions that affect other people. If this means that a player who joins at the beginning of the game gets a completely different experience from one who joins two months later, then so be it!
Instead of quests being offered by NPCs, what if all quests were offered by PCs in response to their actual needs? Perhaps as you are happily building up your city, you discover that you need some resource that you can't gather yourself, or you are threatened by some danger that you don't have the means to defeat. So you post a message on some kind of in-game bulletin board requesting aid and offering some reward for whatever player fulfills your request. Congratulations, you just created a "quest" that provides gameplay grist for other players. The game would need to provide strong communication tools to enable this kind of interaction; it would also need to be designed so that players are always needing each other's help - not just in the "group looking for cleric" kind of way, but in the "shoot I need alien biomass to proceed and my character is incapable of harvesting alien biomass, who can I ask" kind of way.
Why I hate MMORPGs, 5: They're massive time-sucks. The designers have every incentive to make them ever-more time-sucking, so the game design is all about rewarding me for spending time in the game grinding. People scheduling their social lives around raids is not uncommon. Even if I wanted to play, this is not something I could fit into my lfiestyle.
How I'd do it differently: Make the game something where most things can happen asynchronously: the communication model should be more like e-mail or forum posts rather than instant messaging. Maybe when you sign on to the game you make various decisions about your corporation/city/etc. but your invisible underlings do their thing (mine the minerals / build the buildings / research the upgrades) slowly, over the course of days of real-time, while you are signed out; so you only have to sign in periodically to keep things on task, or to do something with another player.
Major endeavors, like an adventuring expedition, that are best undertaken with other players, can be arranged ahead of time using asynchronous communication tools. Trading, planning, and negotiating with other players can also happen using these tools.
Why I hate MMORPGs, 6: There's no ultimate goal or ending condition; you just play until you get bored or don't want to pay anymore.
How I'd do it differently: The game ends. Any given server has a starting date and it either runs for a set length of time (3 months or so) or there are certain game-ending conditions and the game ends once they are fulfilled. Probably there are multiple endings, good ones and bad ones, and the whole server gets a single ending depending on what happened. The ending is ultimately decided by the aggregate of thousands of individual decisions; any player can try to sway the game towards the ending they want, but it's beyond any one player's power to decide.
You play to find out the ending, and the ending gives meaning to the play: Did the players work together well enough to get a good ending? Or did they squabble with each other and do mutually harmful things resulting in a bad ending? It's kind of an online sociological experiment. (And by the way, if you care about the ending, the best thing to do is to organize other people in the game to work together for the good ending.)
After it ends, maybe the game masters wait a week and then start up a brand-new server, with the same players again or with different players. How will it go this time? So you don't play "the" game, you play an instance of the game.
Why I hate MMORPGs, 7: The social scene is all screwed up. In theory, the reason you would play MMORPGs instead of some other game is for the social aspect. In practice, all you see is a hovering name like <xX_DeAtHsTr1kEr_Xx" and a character model who is busily running into a wall, every social cue is missing, and you don't know if you talk to this person whether they'll ignore you, call you a FAG!!1, speak in cryptic acronyms, kill your character, laugh at you for being a NEWB, or what.
From talking to my friends who play and enjoy MMOs, it sounds like they make social connections outside the game first and then follow up with those people in-game. E.g. Atul found his current WOW guild through the guild's website, not through in-game channels The fact that people have to use outside communication tools tells me that the in-game tools are broken.
How I'd do it differently: Well, there's a lot of tweaks you can make to the social interface, but consider just one modest suggestion: You have a switch on your interface that you could turn on if you are willing to talk to/help out newbies. This manifests as some sort of special smiley face that appears over your character's head and that other players can see. Now if I'm a newbie and I'm walking around a crowded area, I can immediately recognize that you are willing to talk to me, and I can start up a conversation with you without worrying about annoying you or getting an unhelpful response.
Also, I'd want to make sure that no character is an island. The whole idea of "soloing" runs contrary to the point of a multiplayer game, but the social structure of something like WOW makes you start out grinding solo until you're worthy enough to be accepted by a group doing higher-level stuff. Screw that! I would want to make sure every player character has useful skills to offer others starting from their very first session. And I'd make sure that nobody is self-sufficient - everybody needs other people to get stuff done - so that players literally have to make friends to be able to play at all.
Atul told me about Metaplace a year or two ago, but I've only tried it out in recent months, and I want to tell you about it.
What's Metaplace? It's a flash game... except it's not really a game, and it's built to support multiple clients, of which Flash is only one. Um, let me start over.
It's an MMORPG, of sorts, but with all content including game mechanics being user-created. Or to look at it another way, it's a game-development platform with a social networking component. When you sign up for an account, you get a small chunk of virtual real-estate, where you can build whatever you want, plus there's a scripting language that lets you make interactive objects and impose game rules on your virtual space. So another way to look at it is that it's like Second Life, but with a Flash client that runs in your browser, more cartoony graphics, and more of a focus on making games rather than just hanging out.
Here's an interview in The Escapist (a great online gaming magazine, by the way) with Raph Koster, creator of Metaplace.
His big idea is that making a virtual world should be like having a blog - within easy reach of anyone with a good idea, freely hosted, easily interlinked with other virtual worlds or with other kinds of web pages, able to be embedded or integrated with other forms of web content. He says, "It's really the equivalent of Blogger, but for virtual worlds." He's sick of every MMORPG, and he's worked on several, having the same old gameplay, and he wants to open it up so that people can innovate.
When you create a Metaplace account, you get a virtual home world with its own URL, and you can link people straight to it or you can embed it in another web page. Every object in your world has a unique URL too - like, there's a URL for 'this here chair'. I'm not sure exactly what that's for, but it shows a very forward-thinking design sense: at some point, as Metaplace interoperability with the web, continues to advance, there will be a use for this. And that chair itself could be rendered using images that are linked in from third-party sites. You can import images from anywhere to use as sprites or surface textrues, and even import 3-d models from the Google Sketchup warehouse. You can embed YouTube videos in your virtual world. You can sell objects that you create for virtual cash in a marketplace and buy objects made by others.
Also very forward-thinking is the Metaplace terms of service. An excerpt:
Rights of World Creators
4. Own their intellectual property.
5. Create and destroy their own world at their discretion with no liability to Metaplace or users.
6. To be the sovereign power of their created worlds and subject to rights reserved by others to have full power and authority in their created worlds.
7. Earn and extract economic value from created worlds.
etc. Seriously, go read that thing. It reads like an artifact that fell out of a time warp from some future epoch where wars have been fought over the rights of virtual citizens. Read it and contemplate the possibilities alluded to by the enumerated rights and enumerated responsibilities of world creators and world users.
OK, OK, so idea-wise, Metaplace is all very cool and exciting and ambitious. But is it good? Is it fun? Is it worth getting invovled with? Does it live up to its lofty ambitions?
After playing around with it for a while, I have to reluctantly answer 'not yet'. There's a lot of potential, but the current implementation is kinda... crummy. Everything is slow, laggy, and buggy, there are glaring interface flaws, may features don't work at all, and it's hard to find documentation on how to make your world do stuff. I still haven't been able to get friend requests to work, and one time a buggy script attached to a monster truck statue in the main hub area teleported me off to the edge of the world, on the wrong side of an invisible fence, and there was no way to get back in until I found an admin who could hand-edit my entry in the user database.
I've only found a few worlds that are even attempting to have any semblance of gameplay, and those are barely functional or playable - more proofs-of-concept than anything you would want to play for fun. And a lot of the worlds are... well, like this:
The whole thing is still in beta, and everybody who's on there so far seems to be in the 'just trying it out' stage. So maybe in a year it'll be awesome; or maybe it'll be abandoned. Who knows?
Thus far, I've been using it mainly as a way to chat with Aleksa. Her hearing aid makes it hard for her to use a phone, and she gets bored easily with text chat. But Metaplace gives us something to do together, which gives us something to talk about. So Metaplace is helping me be a big brother, which is cool. But I could do that with any random online game - I'm not making use of the features that make Metaplace unique.
If you ever want to meet me on there, my username is Jono_X and my world is here, though there's not much there yet - the few times I've worked on it, I've just been trying to figure out the scripting language (a Lua variant) that's used to program behaviors into world objects. If I manage to make something interesting (perhaps a point-and-click adventure game) I'll let you know.
Creators of Super Mario Bros.
A fantastic interview with the creators of the original Super Mario Brothers: Shigeru Miyamoto, Satoru Iwata, Takashi Tezuka, and Toshihiko Nagako.
They talk about the early history of the NES, the origin of Mario's character design, the creation of Donkey Kong, Mario Bros., and Super Mario Bros., and the newest Mario game for Wii (where they finally got to implement ideas, like multiplayer, that they've been trying and failing to do for twenty years. Holy moly.)
It's long, but worth reading from beginning to end. You'll find out why Mario has a moustache, why Koopa Troopas come out of their shells, why there are pipes everywhere, and the many tricks they used to squeeze things into the limited NES memory. (The clouds and the grass were the same image, just with the colors swapped!)
It's clear that the greatness of the Mario games was no accident. These guys are really, really smart. They show a deep and nuanced understanding of all kinds of subtle social and psychological factors that affect how players will approach games. This is most obvious when they discuss the design of the first part of level 1-1 in Super Mario Bros. It's the first thing the player sees, but it was designed last, and they kept tweaking it right up until the game was released in order to make it the perfect in-game tutorial.
Like, the first pipe is there to make the mushroom from the first block turn around and come back towards you. And since there's a roof over your head, it's hard to jump over. So you'll end up getting the mushroom even if you try to avoid it (which some players do, thinking it's another bad guy). They wanted everyone to get the mushroom and discover that it's a good thing. There's bricks over you at that point so that as soon as the mushroom has made you big, you'll probably break one by accident with your next jump, and discover what you can do. It's a very clever arrangement to make the basic game mechanics easily discoverable by trial and error. Like I said, these guys are smart. Their talent for designing easy-to-use software is just as impressive as anybody at Apple or wherever.
It's also fun to read because these guys are obviously great friends with each other, and love their jobs. I've noticed this pattern: if you look behind the scenes on any really good art/entertainment/creative projects, you always find a group of smart, driven, creative people, who respect and enjoy working with each other. If you look behind the scenes of something mediocre or crappy you find people bitching about management and money and pinning blame on each other, or else they sound like they've given up on life, or they treat the whole thing as a joke. There's a qualitative difference there. Good stuff doesn't happen by accident.
Jiang Hu: the diceless roleplaying game!
Me and Sushu decided to make a roleplaying game based on Chinese martial arts / Wu Xia novels.
I know I can get Sushu to roleplay with me a lot more if it's based on subject matter she's interested in! Plus it will be really fun to have a game project that we can work on together.
Sushu grew up on wu xia novels by authors like Jin Yong, the same way I grew up on English-language sci-fi and fantasy. She wrote this cool post explaining the tropes of the genre.
So, she's providing the subject matter expertise, and I'm providing what I know of game design. We worked on it a whole bunch during the train ride.
The biggest design challenge so far has been how to approach the rules for actual kung-fu battles. I don't want them to be super crunchy and mechanical like the rules in, say, Exalted or something. I don't like systems like that because they replace creativity with numerical optimization and plus they make fights take forever.
But I also don't want these rules to be as generic and hand-wavy as kung-fu fights would be in, say, Prime Time Adventures, where it would be like, "You won the card flip! Narrate how you beat him." I want the system to emphasize the details of martial arts dueling: not just who wins, but how, and why.
In the source material, fight scenes are not the opposite of character development scenes: the characterization is done through the fight scenes. How you fight shows who you are! I want this game to capture that. So it means I want the fighting scenes to be very role-playing heavy, strongly rewarding good narration.
During our long train ride, Sushu and I brainstormed up a system to the point where it should be playtestable. To my great surprise, the system so far is completely diceless! It relies mainly on freeform narration backed up by blind bidding of points. It also requires a referee player to judge the effectiveness of each narrated exchange of blows. (If it's a fight between a PC and a GM character, then a third non-GM player must act as referee.)
Thus it needs at least three people to play, so we haven't been able to test it out at all yet. But we're going to playtest it with Alexis during this visit. I'm excited!
Working title for the game is "Jiang Hu" (江湖). Jiang Hu literally means "Rivers and lakes". But in wu xia (武侠) novels, "jiang hu" refers to a kind of martial-arts underworld, a loosely affiliated network of fighting schools, gangs, bandits, and shadowy organizations spread throughout China. A semi-criminal brotherhood with its own rules of honor. Sounds like a pretty cool RPG setting, doesn't it? Gritty and with lots of potential for conflicting loyalties. Character creation will involve deciding how your character is tied into the jiang hu, what kind of reputation he has there, who wants revenge against him, etc.
The kingmaking problem
I had a bit of a birthday party tonight (I just turned 30). Played some Illuminati (the non-collectible one) with Dave, Aaron, and Atul.
Illuminati is fun for a while because the situations it creates are so inherently amusing. You can't even announce your basic actions without saying something that makes the people overhearing you say "WTF". I like to add a layer of role-playing and come up with elaborate justifications to explain exactly what, say, the Phone Phreaks would be doing to help the Bermuda Triangle take over Texas, or what Convenience Stores controlled by Libertarians would be like, or why Kinko's is the only thing that stands in the way of Cthulhu rising agin.
But Illuminati has a really serious problem as a game design, which is this: it's nigh impossible for the game to ever end. As soon as one player is within striking distance of any victory condition (always public info btw) all the other players will gang up to stop the decisive attack. This happens in lots of games, but it's especially effective in Illuminati because any player can spend money one-for-one to increase or decrease any attack. No matter how much money one player has, there's going to be N-1 other players (so in this game, three) with roughly equivalent income, so they can always outspend the attacker three-to-one and make the attack fail.
It's not even a negotiation game at that point, because there's nothing to negotiate: there's nothing you can meaningfully offer another player in exchange for them letting you win. Nothing internal to the game, I mean. Maybe you could offer them another slice of cake or something. So basically you go around blocking each other's attacks until somebody gets bored of the game and gives up. The best chance to win is usually to talk everyone else into throwing all their money into stopping an attack on the turn right before yours, so they don't have enough left to stop you after you get your income on your turn. But that gambit's easy to see coming, so eventually (after many tedious turns of no progress) it comes down to deciding which other player you would rather stop from winning.
Kingmaking: The situation in a 3-or-more-player game where you know you can't win, but you can decide who does.
Kingmaking is a problem in game design because it ain't fun. It's not fun being the guy who decides, and it's not fun winning or losing just because somebody else made an arbitrary decision for or against you.
Illuminati is all about kingmaking in the end. So is Munchkin, and it's one of the main reasons I don't enjoy Munchkin. Actually I think every Steve Jackson game I've played except for GURPS has been all about the kingmaking. Maybe Steve doesn't recognize it as a problem, or maybe he enjoys the kind of wheeling-and-dealing that it leads to.
Other kinds of negotiation in a game are fun, like when you offer another player some sort of trade of favors or resources or put your heads together to plan an attack. Sometimes the politics overwhelms the actual game part of the game, which is frustrating, but used judiciously the possibility of negotiation adds a layer to gameplay that I really like. (It's one of the things missing from most Eurogames, which often eliminate kingmaking as well as politicking by severely limiting your ability to directly affect other players).
What's the difference between negotiation and kingmaking, though? What makes negotiation fun but kingmaking not fun? A conversation I had with Ben a while back about Settlers of Cataan gave me the answer. In a kingmaking situation there is no rational in-game reason for making one decision over another. In a proper negotiation you can weigh what you're giving up vs. what you're gaining and think about how it affects your plans and your chance to win. But in a kingmaking situation you've already given up on your chances to win, so there's nothing to measure your choices against. You have to decide based on out-of-game factors. Like being bribed with extra cake. Or social factors, like deciding which player you like more. (And this is how game design contributes to wrecking friendships. Thanks game designers.)
Ben pointed out that most game groups eventually settle on some sort of social rule for making decisions in kingmaking situations. The social rule is an unspoken assumption that gets applied not just to a particular game, but to every game that group plays. The most common social rules are:
- You must attack the player in the lead
- You must help the player who helped you earlier in the game
- You must play to improve your own score whenever possible, even if you can't win
I've played in a lot of groups that do "attack the player in the lead". Many people have tried to convince me that it was, like, a moral imperative that I attack the player in the lead. Even in, like, Mario Kart. There's a little logic to this, I guess, in that attacking the player in the lead stops the game from ending and thus extends my infinitesimal but theoretically non-zero chance of winning. But, meh. That argument is only persuasive if I want the game to go on forever. Which I generally don't. I'd rather get it over with and play something else! But people who play with this social rule tend to get mad at you if you "throw the game" by letting someone else win when you could have stopped them.
Game designers: Please don't be like Steve Jackson. Design your game to avoid kingmaking situations! It's not impossible. Figure out your victory conditions so that the game can't be dragged out beyond the point where the winner is obvious! Make it so that even if you're not going to win, you can at least play to improve your own score for the last few turns! Include some kind of turn counter or limited supply that forces the game to end in a finite time! Just do something other than leaving it up to a kingmaker.
WARNING addictive Flash game
I had plans for today, but then I found a link to Fantastic Contraption, and before I knew it I had wasted the whole day. So be warned.
It's a 2-d physics engine puzzle game. Each level has a pink ball that you're trying to get into a goal area; there are five very simple pieces which you can use in unlimited quantities to get it there. (Three kinds of wheels, two kinds of sticks). Everything behaves according to mostly realistic physics, and half the fun is watching your plans go awry as objects tip over, collide, get flung, slide off of edges, roll away, etc.
Unlike other physics-engine puzzle games (yes, this is a genre now), Fantastic Contraption doesn't limit your piece supply or score you based on the complexity of your solution, and levels have no single right answer. So your creativity can run wild. It's up to you whether you want to find a brilliantly elegant solution using a single falling stick positioned just so, or whether you want to use 300 pieces making a giant walking spider bot with back-mounted trebuchet to deliver the pink ball in style. There seems to be quite an active YouTube community posting videos of their proudest achievements.
How (video game) RPGs Lost Their Way
How RPGs Lost Their Way - an editorial by Googleshng.
He's talking about video game RPGs, and from the perspective of a hard-core genre fan (i.e. someone extremely familiar with and skilled at a particular game genre, who craves a good challenge).
But it's got a lesson that can be applied to pretty much any form of game design:
When making a game with mechanics inspired by, or based off of, an existing game or genre, be careful of "innovations"! The reason the original game worked was because all of its parts interacted, probably in some pretty subtle ways, to create a certain experience. If you start adding, removing, or changing subsystems without understanding how those subsystems fit into the big picture, you may end up breaking what made the original game work.
E.G., to use one of Googleshng's examples: it's frustrating to die at a boss fight because you were worn down by random encounters! Let's put a free healing / save point right before each boss! Yes, it solves the frustration, but it also nullifies the resource scarcity which was the root cause of all interesting strategic decisions in older games.
Relevant to tabletop RPG design because most tabletop RPGs in history have been basically hacks to D&D that were made without really understanding how all the subsystems in D&D worked together. (I doubt even Gygax really understood them all.)
Anyway, read the article, and take it as an argument for why craft in game design is just as important as "innovation".
Confronting my Clone Daddy -- Interface granularity in PTA
Time to get back into roleplaying, after not doing it for several months!
There is a Star Wars PTA (Prime-Time Adventures) game that I'm playing. I'm a wookie jedi fighting for independence for Kashykk! My father, a representative to the galactic congress, has been kidnapped and replaced with a clone who is loyal to a rival political faction, in order to keep Kashykk under the Republic's thumb. (We're playing the Clone Wars, except that we're pretending the prequel trilogy was never made. We're treating only the original trilogy as canon, so we get to decide for ourselves what "Clone Wars" meant. In our game, it's not a war fought by clone troopers: It's a war started because of the discovery that key political figures were really clones.)
Chris has been doing a great job of GMing this (he talks about it on his blog), throwing out really stellar Bangs and then freestyling the rest. I really like roleplaying with him because he has a knack for figuring out the PERFECT situation to hit a character with; things that put the character on the horns of a dilemma while advancing the plot AND resonating thematically. Like Sushu's character's superior officer ordering her on an ethically dubious mission for the greater good. And my fake clone daddy guilt-tripping me about the death toll that Kashykk's rebellion is causing. Later, getting ambushed in a dark alley by my own clone, armed with my own stolen lightsaber-claws. These are the kind of things that make us yell "you BASTARD!" at the GM, but the whole time we're grinning and loving it.
Some observations about playing PTA:
In general I like it but I feel like it moves a little fast for me - it's great that you can get a whole lot of satisfying plot progression done in 3 hours but I always feel like I'm a little rushed, like we skimmed over some stuff that would have been interesting to explore in more detail.
There's a lot of story brainstorming openly going on at the table during the game (this is the same as my previous experiences with PTA). It's common for the producer(GM) to literally ask you "What do you think should happen next? If you don't have any ideas, I've got one..." A couple of possibilities for a scene are thrown out and round-tabled before one is chosen.
It's a constant reminder that we are all making up a story together, which also serves as a reminder that I'm not really my character and that the GM doesn't know The Secrets Of The Universe any more than I do. It makes character immersion hard (in stance terms, you're almost always in Director Stance, seldom in Actor Stance). I like character immersion, but I also like collaborative storytelling. So it's an acceptable trade-off; some games are good for immersion, others aren't.
Giving and receiving fanmail feels really good! What feels bad is when you want to give fanmail but you technically can't because there's no spent budget yet this session. Another bad feeling is realizing that even though there was some amazing scene that deserved it, everyone forgot to give fanmail for it and now it's too late. (I sometimes find myself thinking "Oh no, the producer only has 2 budget left, this episode is going to end too soon unless we burn more fanmail..." Is that bad?)
The card flip resolves the main conflict of the scene, so there's always a lot of discussion about what's really the main conflict of the scene (or if there is one at all). Getting this right is important, but it's also tricky. E.g. I'm in a burning, rapidly collapsing starport and I'm trying to lift some spaceship wreckage so some engineers can escape. The conflict is not "can I lift the wreckage" (of course I can, wookies are strong) or even "do I get out of the starport", but rather "Do I rescue anybody" - because my character's issue (right there on his sheet) is "Morality of war?" and the way that's being expressed in this episode is that I'm trying to find out whether I can be a warrior who saves lives instead of a warrior who kills people. And if I can't rescue anybody, that's going to be a big blow to my idealism. Mis-identifying the conflict can really ruin a scene in this game, by breaking the connection between the scene and your character issues.
The card flip resolves the main conflict of the scene, AND it tells you who narrates (most red cards wins conflict, but highest individual card narrates). That means that you know the outcome first and then, while narrating, you decide the specific events of the conflict that led to that conclusion. This retroactive narration can feel a little bit anti-climactic because when you say e.g. "I shoot one of the police aircars with my grappling hook gun and whip it around a lamppost so it goes off course and crashes into the other one" you already know it's going to work because you see that king of hearts on the table. You're really just showing off with a cool description at that point, it doesn't actually matter what you say.
There's very little in the way of rules about what you can and can't narrate. Generally anything other than the resolution of the main conflict is considered incidental details up to the imagination of the narrator. Technically that means you can have a planet explode as a side-effect of two people having a conflict over who's going to make breakfast; only your sense of story logic and fair play prevents it. Generally people don't go that far, but there's a lot of grey area where it feels like you're cheating a little by getting free stuff as incidental narration details.
When we're playing PTA, we're constantly saying things like "And then there's a close-up on my face so you can see the burning starport reflected in my eyes, and one little tear rolls down my face". It's totally visual description, using the visual language of TV. We describe close-ups, slow-motion, flashbacks, what the background music sounds like, and whether a scene transition uses a wipe (Star Wars is so in love with wipes! It's crazy.) Sometimes we even talk about how cheap our props look, or that you can tell an effect is done with blue-screen because you can see a fuzzy border around the spaceship! All this stuff is, again, kind of the opposite of immersion -- but it's really fun, and it gives you "permission" to be silly and self-aware and abuse TV tropes.
Sushu describes this as "a cheat" - an easy way to get all the players on the same page and give them a common vocabulary for describing things, to keep things flowing smoothly with fewer mismatches of imagination. Even when you're playing a genre that some are not real familiar with, like playing a space opera with non-science-fiction-fans, everybody knows what a TV show looks like and how characters talk on TV so you can sort of fall back on that. Some RPGs, especially ones with weird settings, have trouble getting that level of shared understanding; it's why I've never been able to get into Exalted - I just can't grasp what it's supposed to feel like. I've had a similar problem with Sushu's Jiang Hu game, so of course she's looking for possible solutions.
The scene where I fought my clone was so great. (Speaketh my fake clone daddy: "You'll serve us one way... or another." SO GOOD.) He didn't have my years of Jedi training, so he was fighting with brute force - I knew the weaknesses of my own fighting technique from the beginning of my training and used that knowledge to defeat him. He was at my mercy; after a minute of indecisiveness I decided to kill him rather than leave him alive to cause trouble later. It was a pretty major character development moment: I had played my guy as having some anger management issues and a hatred of clones, but this was my first ever murder-in-cold-blood. Could it foreshadow a turn to the Dark Side? (BUM BUM BUUUUM!)
But right after that scene, this weird thing happened that I want to talk about. I think it illustrates some deeper role-playing issues.
So I was on Corsucant and I had just killed my clone. The obvious next move, in terms of story progression, was pretty obvious -- it was time to track down Fake Clone Daddy in the Senate chambers and confront him, maybe see if I could unmask him publically somehow, maybe issue him an ultimatum.
But I didn't do that. Instead, I stopped to think logically about my situation.
Alone, outnumbered, in the heart of the enemy capitol, with no idea how to locate my fake clone daddy, let alone a plan for getting past the defenses that he would obviously have, or how to prove to the rest of the Senate that he was an impostor? Meanwhile my enemies know where I am? Dude, that's a terrible situation. I started worrying about having a plan that made logistical sense and getting everything done in the right order, A to B to C - I have to find a ship to get offworld and round up some contacts from the separatist movement who can help me create a distraction while I look up my mother who is a deep undercover spy and get information from her about where I can ambush Clone Daddy...
Of course the game ground to a screeching halt while I ran through all this stuff in my head. I kind of killed the great momentum we had built up.
I'm still not sure why I got into this strange mood where I was all worrying about the logistics. Part of it was that feeling I described earlier, that we were speeding through things that would be interesting to play out in more detail; so I wanted to play a little slower and more thoroughly. But part of it was also that stopped thinking about "what would be cool to see on a TV show" and started thinking "What would I really do if I was in a realistic version of this situation."
I ended up doing a couple scenes where I went off-planet to round up support and then had to sneak back in. And then I ended up confronting my clone daddy in the Senate chambers anyway, and it was an awesome scene! But the thing is, it's exactly the same awesome scene as if I had just gone straight there immediately.
PTA is, to put it mildly, not a game that rewards logistical thinking. It's not like you get bonus cards for sound tactics in this game. I think Ben Lehman sa id something about it working well when you "take seriously the idea that it is about good TV, and don't try to play it like GURPS Lite".
In GURPS, if you said "I want to confront my father's impostor" would be a request for a year-long character-specific sub-quest that would get addressed with occasional scraps of a clue whenever the GM remembered to include one. If you ever did find and confront him, it would be as a result of executing thousands of individual actions involving skill checks and attack rolls and movement. Because the interface of GURPS (along with D&D, etc.) requires that you execute your desires at that level of granularity.
In PTA, "I want to confront my father's impostor" is a scene request. You get a turn to request a scene, and the Producer generally gives you what you request. Something that would take many, many sessions in a crunchy, GM-driven traditional RPG like GURPS is effectively a single turn in PTA.
Because that's the level that PTA's interface works at. You name a place for the scene; you don't have to justify exactly how you got there, or how you knew where it was, or how long it took you, or that you had the right items in your inventory, or that you had enough spaceship fuel, or anything like that. It's TV: you're just like "External shot of the Senate building in Coruscant, night time; then cut to inside, and I'm descending from the ceiling on my grappling hook gun..." and everybody's like "Cool".
PTA and GURPS are more or less on opposite ends of a scale, here. I don't know any games more granular than GURPS or less granular than PTA (with its single-resolution-per-scene). There's a lot of room in between.
It might be a useful thing to think about, in game design: What kind of interface does your game have? What level does that interface operate at? What are the "basic moves" in your game? Is it like a text adventure, where basic moves are very concrete and physical - "Go west; light torch; poke statue with stick" ? Or is it like a TV show, where the basic "moves" are scenes and character confrontations and dramatic choices? Or something else?
And when you know what the interface of your game should be, how do you communicate that to your players? I don't think most games do a good job of explaining their interfaces. I'm remembering the time my mom tried to play D&D and she was confused -- like "I don't understand what are the things I can do in the game; is there like a list?" When I was getting logistical in PTA, I think that was an example of me playing to the wrong interface.
Wizard 101 - Focused Like a Laser
At ten years old, Aleksa is already a serious gamer. She discovered an MMORPG for kids called Wizard 101 and asked if I would play it with her. I don't normally like MMORPGs, and Wizard101 looked like a total Harry Potter knock-off, but I thought it would at least be fun to have something we can play together when she's in Illinois and I'm in California.
It turns out that not only is it a great way to play together long-distance, but Wizard101 is actually quite a fun and well-designed game in its own right. The more I discover about it, the more respect I have for the game designers (a small Austin, TX company called Kingsisle, with about 100 employees).
They have over 10 million players - in other words, Wizard 101 is only slightly smaller than World of Warcraft! Given that, I don't know why we don't hear more about it. I suspect it flies under the radar due to the fact that it's "freemium" rather than subscription and the fact that it's aimed at 6-14 year olds.
But under the bright, cartoony exterior, Kingisle have made a pretty serious game, with hundreds of hours of content and surprising tactical depth for obsessive optimizers to explore. Years of polish have gone into this thing.
This is going to be another lengthy post, since I think Wizard 101 has interesting things to say about game design and I want to delve into them.
1. The designers learned the right lessons from Magic: the Gathering.
First of all, the core game system is a turn-based collectible card game; all combat is done by playing spell cards, which makes it feel quite different from the typical aggro-based MMORPG combat system.
There are seven schools of magic: Fire, Ice, Storm, Life, Death, Myth, and Balance. You can pick one, or you can take a Sorting Hat -esque personality test, but either way you are then locked into your choice. (I took the test and got Death School. Awesome, I'm Slytherin!)
You'll be able to learn every spell from your main school if you reach the right levels and do the right quests. But you also get Training Points as you level up which can be used to learn spells from other schools. Training Points are rare, and better spells have prerequisites, so the decisions are tricky. Focus on a single secondary school, or pick and choose cheap utility spells from all over? What will combo well with the big spells from your main school? The possibility for customization means that no two wizards will play exactly the same, even in the same school.
Since everybody is wizards, obviously there isn't the typical set of character classes. Each school has its own specialties -- Death loves life-draining effects, Myth loves summoning minions, Storm has mega-damage with low accuracy, etc. etc. But every character gets enough damage and self-healing spells to be soloable. You don't NEED to form a party of tank/healer/nuker; everybody's a generalist.
Between battles, you can customize your deck. You can put in up to three copies of any spell that you know; you start each battle with a random hand of seven cards. Like Magic: the Gathering, each school has color hosers against its enemy schools, and monsters are often resistant against one school, so there's good reason to tweak your deck based on the enemies you're facing. Unlike Magic, you can discard freely and you always draw up to 7 each turn, so there's little penalty for including very situational cards as you can always cycle them.
Each spell has a "pip" cost equal to its mana cost. You build up pips one per round. That means you can cast a 1-mana spell every round; or you can pass three times and then cast a 4-mana spell, for instance. There are also 0-cost spells, which typically don't do damage but instead buff and debuff, cause or remove conditions, etc. So you can cast 0-mana spells for three rounds and then cast your 4-mana spell. Much of the fun lies in choosing 0-cost spells that will set up effective combos for your big spells, so that you can do something useful while charging up.
The pip system accomplishes something similar to the land system in M:tG (but without mana screw): gives you a reason to include a mixture of low-cost and high-cost spells in your deck, and ensures that the basic cheap spells you learned at the beginning of the game always remain useful and are not eclipsed by the bigger, costlier spells you learn as you level up.
(PvP is allowed, but only by mutual consent within a special PvP arena. I haven't tried it out yet.)
2. Grouping is low-cost, low-committment
Battles take place in a magic circle, clearly visible to others; if you enter it, you join the battle. That means that if you're running by and somebody calls for help, it's very simple to pop in and help them out; if you don't want to fight, you just avoid the circle. Joining the circle generally causes another monster to join the circle as well, keeping the encounter balanced at about the same difficulty level no matter how many players are working together. If you're collecting monster drops for a quest, *every* player who participated in the battle gets the item; that means there's no fighting over loot. Finally, everybody's a wizard -- in the absence of the usual healer/tank/nuker paradigm, anybody can make a useful contribution to any group.
All of these design choices add up to an environment where helping out a stranger is a very casual, low-cost decision. Nobody ever has to wait around town spamming "L32 rogue LFG"; you don't have to stop playing when your healer signs off for the night. You just start soloing your quest, and while you're battling maybe you run into someone else on the same quest and help each other out; when the quest is done you might friend each other or just say thanks and go your separate ways. Easy breezy.
3. No Death Penalty
When you reach 0 hp, you can't fight anymore. You have the choice of fleeing, or waiting around in the battle for a friend to heal you (any healing spell will put you back in the fight). If you click Flee, or if you die alone, you instantly respawn in a safe location with 1 hp. You lose nothing but the time it takes to recharge your health. Health regenerates while you're in safe areas, so you can do some quick run-around-talk-to-NPC town quests and earn XP while you're waiting. Or you can drink a potion for an instant refill; potion bottles are a tightly limited resource, but you can refill a bottle by paying gold or playing minigames. The minigames aren't bad (they're mostly re-themed versions of old arcade classics), they're a nice change of pace, and they give you mana and gold too.
You can always teleport to anyone on your friends list, so if you have a friend in the dungeon, you can heal up and then rejoin the quest instantly. Sometimes you can even rejoin the very same battle that killed you! "Hey, I'm back, what did I miss?"
So the worst you ever suffer from dying is having to play a round of Dig Dug or Tetris Attack. Think about how not frustrating that is compared to typical MMORPG design: No corpse runs, no equipment damage, no XP penalty. Obviously, when you're aiming at kids it's important not to be frustrating. But ask yourself: why do we think "serious" games need harsh death penalties? Wizard101 proves that treating death lightly does not, in fact, ruin the rest of the game. So why do game designers feel the need to punish players?
4. Cool Setting
The game's multiverse, called "The Spiral", is pretty cool. The spiral is a collection of floating-island worlds which reflect different mythologies. The first world is Wizard City, built among the roots of the World Tree, and serving as this game's Hogwarts / Diagon Alley; I've also unlocked Krokotopia, an ancient-Egyptian world of talking reptiles, and Grizzleheim, a Norse world of bears and wolves. I hear rumors of Marleybone, a steampunk Victorian London of cats and dogs, and other worlds like Dragonspire and Celestia. It's almost like a cartoonier version of the Planescape multiverse or something.
The initial "wizard school" setup is extremely Harry Potter-ish, true, but as the story goes on it draws on a wider range of fantasy tropes and inspirations. It's not exactly the most original thing, but so what? Some of it may be old hat to us jaded oldsters, but the implementation is pretty good. And for the target audience, it may be the first time they've seen some of these tropes in action.
5. Seamless First-Run Experience
The technical implementation is amazingly well done (aside from only running on Windows, cough). They made the path to start playing as seamless as possible. You can start playing without paying anything. You can start making your character using a flash app on the website. While you're doing that, the game installer starts downloading in the background and installing the absolute minimal data to start playing. By the time you're done making your character, the game client has your information and is ready to go. It dynamically downloads the rest of the game content while you're playing around in the starting areas. Mad props to the programmers who pulled this off; it's the kind of achievement that sadly most people won't even notice or think about -- except when they play another game and wonder why it takes so long to start.
The slickness continues once in the game. The tutorial quests do a really smooth job of teaching you the interface and basic mechanics while introducing you to the main mentor and villain NPCs (aka "Definitely Not Dumbledore" and "Definitely Not Voldemort") and the main storyline. You can break off and explore at your own at any time, but if you just follow the dotted line of the starting quest chains, they'll take you through the first few levels while teaching you everything you need to know. This is pretty important for getting new players into such an open-ended game.
6. No Subscription Needed
The pricing model is "freemium", i.e. you can start playing free, but certain features cost real money. Payment is in "crowns", i.e. you pay (or get your parents to pay) like $10 on the website for 5000 crowns or whatever, then you spend them in-game to unlock stuff. Certain areas of each game world cost like 1000 crowns each to unlock, but once you buy them they're unlocked forever. This ties the cost to the progress you've made rather than to the raw number of hours you've spent.
It works really well, as parents can control the total spending while allowing the kid to make the decisions about what they want. You can sample the gameplay before committing to anything, and there's no feeling of a time limit -- it's not like you're "wasting" money if you don't play for a couple weeks.
Or, if you prefer, you can pay a monthly fee to unlock everything. Whichever makes more sense for you. Kingsisle is happy to take your money whichever way you want to give it to them.
You can also spend crowns on vanity items like flying broomsticks, rare pets, fancy hats, etc., and to "respec" your character (i.e. buy back all training points).
7. Focused Like A Laser
If you read interviews with the designers, it's obvious that they had a very clear vision for Wizard 101. Most of them had just come off of working on a very dark, violent, M-rated, hard-core MMO called Shadowbane (which died in 2009), and they wanted to do something different. They saw that there was an unmet demand for an online game that families could play together, i.e. something kids could play, but with enough depth not to bore adults to death. So they focused like a laser on that concept, and threw out everything that didn't fit.
I think this is one of the most important things for a designer to do; there's so much temptation to put in everything you can think of and try to please everybody, but it doesn't work. In Wizrd101, every decision they made supports their vision of something that the family can play together. Everything from the art style to the interface design to the combat system to the chat filter, like it or not, exists to reinforce this concept. The final product has a level of coherence and consistent feel that you wouldn't get any other way.
Stuff I don't like:
Not everything is roses, of course. Aside from the standard MMORPG gameplay flaws ("Oh how exciting: another kill-ten-rats quest. Sigh...") there are a few "features" that I could really do without.
1. Long attack animations
Every non-trivial attack spell in the game uses a Final Fantasy-esque summoning animation. These animations take.
They're fun the first or second time you see them, but by the tenth time I played a Ghoul I wished there was a way to fast-forward it. And your enemies are also attacking with summoning animations. So the battles move quite slowly. It's good to have someone to chat with while you're fighting.
2. No item trading
With the exception of Treasure Cards, items can't be given to or exchanged with other players, which is lame. You can give items to alt characters on the same account, so I don't think it's a technological limitation; it seems to be a conscious design decision. Maybe they didn't want to worry about kids getting ripped off in unfair trades and then complaining? I find a lot of item drops that I can't use, and it would be more fun to give them to players who could use them rather than just selling them to the auction house.
3. Inaccurate magic names
This is a really minor pet peeve, but the names some of the magical specializations are just wrong. Necromancers and Pyromancers are exactly what you'd expect, but then they go and call Storm wizards "Diviners". What? They're not diviners! Diviners use magic to predict the future and learn secrets beyond mortal ken! Storm wizards don't see the future, they just summon lightning sharks!
And Ice wizards are called "Thaumaturges"? What the heck? "Thaumaturge" is Greek for "Miracle worker", and it's been used for a lot of different kinds of magic in various fantasy fiction, but I've never heard of it being associated with ice or cold in any way.
You're abusing my obscure fantasy vocabulary! NERD RAGE!
4. Severly restricted text input
You can't name your character freely, for instance; you have to mix-and-match morphemes from a list. That's why my character has such a twee name (um... "Corwin Lotusweaver". Ahem.) On the plus side, this does mean nobody's named things like XxX_N00B_sLaYeR_XxX... but it is kind of boring how many Stormcallers and Dragonfires there are running around.
Chat is primarily menu-based. (Thankfully, the menus contain names of items and quests you might be looking for help with...) It's nice for kids who haven't learned to type yet. There's also text chat if it's enabled in the parental controls, but even there, any word not on their whitelist is blocked. That's right, they don't use a blacklist, they use a whitelist.
I understand why they did it that way, but it's still unpleasantly draconian. (I bypass the whole thing by running Skype in the background so I can talk to Aleksa with my actual voice.)
The terrifying future of game design
If you haven't seen this yet, you should:
It's a talk by a guy named Jesse Schells, at the DICE 2010 game designer conference.
It starts kind of slow, but watch the whole thing. The first half is about how the computer gaming industry got totally blindsided by the unexpected success, in the last couple years, of games that extend into the real world in one way or another, as well as games that exploit human psychological flaws to keep people playing and paying.
The second half is what I really want you to see, though. He lays out a vision of the future which is all-too-plausible, horrifying, and yet strangely attractive at the same time. "It's coming", Jesse says, "Because what's gonna stop it?"
The talk about "achievements" also reminded me of this lovely thought experiment: What if Super Mario Bros. had been designed in 2010?
Make a skill check to find the clue!
This is a conversation me and Googleshng were having in the car the other day.
If you're playing a traditional, GM-preps-a-scenario type of RPG, then one of the absolute worst things you can do to your players is the ol' "Make a skill check to find the clue" situation. As in, "A successful Aquarium Lore check is required to deduce that the killer hid the bodies behind the sea cucumber tank".
A failed roll brings the game to a screeching halt, and then you all have to muddle around guessing randomly, the GM secretly wishing he fudged the roll, until he figures out a different way of giving you the same information.
Man, I hate this stuff so much.
(In case you think this problem is mythical, consider for example published Call of Cthulhu adventures, which were made of this stuff.)
So there's a bunch of mistakes going on here. One is plotting out a story that has to go a certain way. You're always better prepping situations, not plotlines. The second mistake is rolling dice for situations where failure is uninteresting. Dice are there for randomization; If only a successful skill check will allow the game to proceed, then what's the randomization for, exactly?
Both of those problems have been analyzed plenty already. Something I haven't seen discussed much, though, is the role of skill system and chargen system design in encouraging this particular kind of crappy play.
Think about it. There's a certain Simulationist design impulse that says your game needs skills for everything. Of course we need an Astronomy skill and a Baking skill and a Weapon Proficiency: Wet Macaroni and an Ancient Babylonian Mathematics skill and a skill for piloting hydrofoils.
With all those skills on your character sheet, of course the game needs opportunities to use them, right? Especially if you're like "I wanna be a good GM, I don't want this to just be a series of fights, gotta put in some intellectual challenges" and you're making the mistake of confusing a skill roll with an intellectual challenge.
You see what's going on here? The character generation system is driving the experience of play. Chargen produces this number, therefore play needs to use it somewhere. This is backwards. It should be the other way around! If you're designing a game, you need to think about the experience you want play to focus on, and then design the most minimal chargen system needed to support that.
Finally, remember that a skill roll is a resolution mechanic: its function is to resolve a situation by producing a binary outcome: success or failure. Consider, O designer, that deciding between success or failure is not the only thing a mechanic can do. It might not actually be what you want. Especially if your goal is mainly to express something about a character!
Maybe it's important to your fiction that a character is, say, an astronomer. Instead of expressing that as a boosted percentage chance of success on astronomy-related tasks (something that's really hard to bring into play without "skill check to find clue"), you could bring it into play as:
- A generator of situations: "OK, you're at an international cosmological conference in Europe, and your archenemy Dr. Cagliari is there, getting ready to publicly ridicule your paper on dark matter..."
- Something that gives the player authority over certain situations: whenever something astronomy-related comes up, you get to decide what it means and describe your character's brilliant deductions, and nobody can contradict you.
- Something entirely different...
You can do either of those things informally, layering them on top of a task-resolution skill system if you like, but also think about what it would mean to actually design formal game mechanics around such a concept.
The point of game criticism. Also: Dissociated mechanics
In a comment on a previous post, Satyreyes wrote:
"Not fun," "unusable," "D&D is dead." (Quoting from your post, Jono, and from the site you link to.) I'm mystified by how much effort intelligent people are putting into proving that 4e is, *objectively,* a bad game -- and how implicitly insulting their tone is towards players who enjoy 4e. The Alexandrian attributes 4e's success entirely to "the Dungeons & Dragons trademark, tons of marketing muscle, and plenty of people who were either dissatisfied with 3rd Edition or just like anything shiny and new." I understand the value of analyzing the aspects of 4e that make it not fun *for you* in order to build a game that will be more fun *for you,* but it's somewhat baffling when people spend time trying to prove that a game enjoyed by millions is objectively unfun. It's rather like trying to prove that asparagus tastes terrible. :\
I had a couple things I wanted to say to that.
1. When I criticize a game, I don't mean to insult anyone who likes it. It's just a game; even if it was objectively the worst game in the world, it's up to you what you do with your hobby time and that doesn't make you a bad person. If I ever implied otherwise, I didn't mean it. Please consider everything I say on this site to come with a standard disclaimer: "No offense meant to people who like this game".
2. On the subject of game design, I think there's two kinds of criticisms you can make of a game. One is useful, the other isn't.
The non-useful one is criticizing a game based on it not being the kind of game you like. E.g. I can't stand trivia games. Whether it's a well-designed or a poorly designed trivia game, I ain't gonna enjoy it. But it doesn't make sense for me to say "Why did you design a trivia game? Trivia games suck." It's an entirely subjective judgment and it doesn't help anyone be a better game designer.
A lot of criticisms of D&D4 have fallen into this category. Any complaints about characters being "too strong" at 1st level, about "not being D&D enough" or being "too combat-centric" or "too much like an MMORPG", etc. It's a different game. If it's not the game you want, you've got lots of other choices (including continuing to use your D&D 3 books, or Pathfinder, or using one of the old-school retro-clones, etc.)
3. The useful way of criticizing a game is when you point out elements of the design that work against the game's own design goals.
For example, if a trivia game has questions worded in an ambiguous or confusing way, or listed answers that are incorrect, or whatever, then that works against its own design goals of being a good trivia game. There's still some element of subjectivity here, but because you're judging the game by its own standards this is a far more useful criticism. It's something that people who like trivia games ought to care about, and points the way to designing better trivia games.
I would sum up D&D 4's design goals like this: to be an exciting game of tactical skirmish combat between small groups of heroes and monsters with fun special abilities; to provide variety in encounters and deep customizability of characters; to challenge players and to reward teamwork, planning, and sound tactics; to give every class something interesting to do every round; to be balanced at every level; and to create a feeling of fantasy action heroes kicking butt in a dangerous world.
Criticizing aspects of the design that work against those goals is constructive; criticizing the goals themselves is constructive only in as much as it helps you clarify where your own design goals are different. Criticizing it just for having different design goals from your favorite RPG isn't constructive.
Given that, I believe that the slowness of combat is something that works against the design goals. Specifically it works against the feeling of kicking butt, it works against challenging players, and it works against variety of encounters (because longer encounters means fewer encounters). Part of the slowness of combat is a direct result of "give every class something interesting to do every round" and "be balanced" - it means people spend a lot of time pondering closely-balanced choices. But combat also feels grindy just because it goes on for too many rounds, because things have too many hit points. Cut down everybody's hit points (easy to do as a house rule) and you get closer to the goals of challenge, variety, and kicking butt.
The dissociated mechanics thing, which is the reason I linked to the Alexandrian article, is also something I think works against the design goals, specifically the goal of feeling like a fantasy hero. Many of the abilities are very abstract, numbers-only abilities, designed to fit a mechanical niche rather than a fictional one. I know that I have the option once per encounter to activate this ability which will manipulate the numbers in a certain way; but I don't know what my character is doing, fictionally, to make that happen. That makes it hard to imagine the scene and even harder to reason about what, if anything, I could do with this power in a non-combat situation.
Examples: The fighter can put a mark on enemies. What am I doing there, exactly? It's not that I'm taunting them, because it works on unintelligent baddies or ones that don't speak my language. Am I just good at exploiting an opening when a bad guy lets their guard down around me to attack someone else? That fits better, but then how come another player marking the same enemy dispels my mark? That doesn't make sense if we interpret it as exploiting an opening. What's the difference between an opportunity attack, which anybody can do, and marking, which only fighters can do? What does it look like when I mark somebody? Is the enemy aware of who's marking them? All these are things that you need to know to negotiate a shared imagined space. But because the ability has no foundation in fictional actions, only in mechanics, I have no idea.
It gets sillier. There's some class, I think it was the paladin, who can teleport next to an ally being attacked in order to take the blow for them. Taking a blow for your ally is wonderfully flavorful, but teleporting? Does that mean I literally disappear from the normal space-time continuum at one point and reappear at another point? Or are they just using the word "teleport" as a piece of rules jargon with a concrete meaning (passing through enemy-occupied squares, not triggering attacks of opportunity) to clear up tactical positioning questions that the ability would otherwise raise? In which case, maybe I should imagine that I'm just diving in front of the guy to take the blow, and I don't actually have the power to teleport around like Nightcrawler. But if it really is teleportation, then that just raises so many questions. Can I teleport at will or only when my friends are threatened? Can I, like, have a prophetic dream that my friend is in mortal danger in the next room, teleport to him through the wall, and then find out he wasn't really in danger? Could I always do this or did it take training? Did my mutant power manifest at puberty? Do I ever teleport involuntarily? Do people in this world who see a paladin walking down the street know that he's a teleporter? Do they think it's unnatural and scary or do they think it's proof of a divine miracle? Can I teleport silently or does it make a loud "BAMF" noise?
The teleporting paladin is not exactly a common archetype in fantasy literature, so we can't even refer to a common genre understanding to interpret how this ought to work.
Meanwhile, the cleric has an attack which damages an enemy and heals an ally. Makes sense tactically/mechanically for an ability like that to exist, but what's happening here exactly? Especially given the fact that there's an explicit rule saying no, I can't just carry a bag of rats and wallop one anytime my friends need free healing? There's no fantasy literature archetype to refer to here, either.
Yes, you can make up your own answers to all these questions, and with a lot of work a group might even be able to agree on interpretations of all the common powers which make sense and avoid contradicting each other. But the path of least resistance, when confronted with abilities that don't make fictional sense, is to simply stop trying to imagine them fictionally and just treat them as what they are - a card with numbers on it that I manipulate to gain advantages for my game token. This pulls me out of the imaginary world and makes me feel more like an accountant than a fantasy hero kicking butt.
And the thing that get my goat is, it wouldn't have been that hard to avoid this problem completely. Wizards of the Coast knows a lot about tying flavor to mechanics; they've gotten pretty good at doing it on Magic cards even. All they would have had to do is design the powers to have a fictional effect first, and then a mechanical effect. It's the difference between "the Moobly-Groobly spell does X damage to enemies in the target area" (mechanics only) vs. "the Moobly-Groobly spell creates a fiery explosion of size X somewhere within distance Y (fictional effect) which does Z damage to creatures in that area (mechanical effect)." The latter gives us a fictional fact (there's a fiery explosion!) to work with: we can reason that it knocks stuff over, lights things on fire, could potentially blow open doors, etc. etc.
They could have made a game which was every bit as tactical but which, by not sacrificing the fictional justifications of the powers in order to do so, did a better job at attaining the feeling of fantasy heroes kicking butt. And that would have been a game that better achieved their own design goals.
Yesterday was the first day in like two months that I didn't have any activities scheduled. It felt really nice. I ate food, played a bunch of games with a visiting friend, enjoyed the sunshine, enjoyed a lemon sorbet in downtown Palo Alto, watched a crazy guy on the sidewalk swing a bag around and yell, backed away from him slowly, went home, practiced accordion, put some paint on a Khadoran warjack, read some more Homestuck, and went to bed.
Anyway I wanted to talk about games. I played some Warmachine, some Agricola, and some Tigris + Euphrates, and this morning while I was biking to work I got to thinking about the concept of game balance, and how people on the internet love to argue about it without ever really defining it.
Does "balance" mean each player has an equal chance to win? Or that different choices of factions are equally powerful, in a game that has such a thing? Or that different types of strategies are balanced against each other? Or that all the different game options (e.g. units, or cards, or character classes, as applicable) are equally good? (And if they were really all equally good, wouldn't that mean it doesn't matter which one you pick, and wouldn't that be a really boring game?)
Here's a thought. If you give a game to the most competitive possible players, people who want to win at all costs and will exploit every opportunity that is legal by the game rules, then they will optimize ruthlessly. They'll probably do a better job of finding the optimal choices than the game designers ever could.
Any choices that are sub-optimal will be quickly abandoned. In a fighting game, the competitive players will center on a subset of characters who are marginally more powerful than the rest. In a wargame, they'll build armies of only the most powerful units and ignore the rest. In a CCG they will identify the most powerful card combos. Etc.
All of the options in your game have now been divided into a hard core of competitive, tournament-worthy options surrounded by a gaseous halo of "suck". Only newbies use "sucky" options, while serious competitive games are played with options from the hard core only.
From the perspective of those competitive gamers, then, the options beyond the hard core may as well not exist in your game. The process of learning to be good at your game is partly a process of learning to discard these options, shrinking the game down to just the best of the best. This means that your game is smaller, i.e. less options, than you designed it to be.
(What about the non-competitive gamers, i.e. those whose top priority in making game choices is something other than sheer effectiveness? They might choose a character or build a deck or an army based on theme or story or whatever else, and good for them! They're important too; but they're not part of the definition of "balance" that I'm sketching out here, because what they want out of a game is different. Hopefully your game can be balanced for the uber-competitive crowd without sacrificing the theme or story elements that appeal to these other players.)
As I was saying, your game effectively has fewer options than what you designed it to have. The question is, what's the ratio? As an extreme case, consider a game with a hundred choices of armies/decks/characters/etc. but one of them is so much better than the rest that it is the only one used by competitive players. In high-level games, then, there is effectively only one choice. Every matchup is the mirror matchup, and games are decided by slight differences in skill with playing that one choice, or by luck, or by who goes first, or whatever. The other 99% of your game does not get played. (This is closely related to the idea of a game being "solved" in the game-theory sense.)
For the opposite extreme, consider paper-rock-scissors. Someone who wants to win must consider all three options. All three, 100% of the options, are part of the competitive hard-core. We can say that jan-ken-po is 100% balanced. ("balanced" does not imply "interesting" or "fun" mind you.) This is my definition of game balance: The size of the viable competitive option space relative to the entire possibility space of the game.
The smaller your hard-core is relative to the entire space of options, the more imbalanced your game is, the less variety competitive matchups have, and the more of the game design is "wasted".
The original Starcraft, with Brood War expansion, is well known for its excellent game balance, and with this definition, we can see why. Even after the most competitive gamers in the world had thirteen years of refinement, they have not "solved" the game down to a single dominant strategy. Many strategies remain viable, and almost every one of the game's dozens of units has a use as part of one of those strategies. (The Zerg Queen and the Protoss Scout, rarely seen in competitive play, are two of the very few exceptions.) The balance of the game means that almost every option included in the game design gets used, which leads to lasting variety even in the highest levels of play, which is why people have continued to play it for so long.
Other people may have varying definitions of game balance, but this is mine. I hope that it might be of some use to anyone thinking about game design.
Games != art ?
My take on the 'are games art?' question sparked by Roger Ebert's curmudgeonly article:
I say "no, games (with video games as a subset) are not art". But before you leave angry comments, let me elaborate. Games are not art, they are something else entirely, something which is equally capable of cultural significance and equally worthy of considered study as art. They exist on a different plane from art and should be judged on their own terms.
Trying to treat games as an art form actually does games a disservice; games deserve their own critical vocabulary and their own form of analysis because many of the tools we use to analyze art are poorly suited to analyzing games. A player of a game makes decisions and actively participates in constructing what they experience; being audience to a piece of art lacks this dimension. Art critics don't even know how to address interactivity; they lack the vocabulary to ask the right questions.
Art can be meaningful because of the meaning that the artist puts into it (and sometimes meaning that you read there that they didn't intend). A game with a storyline can have traditional author-intended artistic meaning encoded into that storyline, but this is usually incidental to the game itself. Games have their own way of conveying deep meaning: the decisions that you and your fellow players make reveal human nature in action. Games like Poker, or Werewolf/Mafia, or Diplomacy, which have no storylines at all, are like windows straight into dark parts of the human soul. Intense, first-person psychological studies that teach you about relationships, trust, lying, small-group dynamics, mob mentality... there's a whole world of depth there, which can never be understood by asking about "the plot" or "the characters" or "what was the artist trying to say".
Game design is about crafting a rules framework that supports, constrains, elicits, and focuses meaningful and interesting decisions by the players. Good game design contains brilliant gems of ingenuity; rules that work together to subtly draw players in a certain direction or to demand that they consider something they've never thought of before. Like the way the scoring system in King of Siam encourages you to pretend to support one kingdom while secretly angling for a different one to win. Or the way the first few screens of Super Mario Bros. act as a silent tutorial, teaching the player the basics of play without using words. Or the way that the gun dice and fallout dice in Dogs in the Vineyard make you constantly ask yourself, do I care about this enough to draw a gun over it? If you understand the depth of what the game designer accomplished and the elegance of how they did it, it can take your breath away. But all this creative genius is invisible to you if the only question you know how to ask is "what artistic statement is this game trying to make".
Do games deserve more respect than they get? Yes. But the attempt to make them respectable by shoving them into a place on the Pedestal Of Significance that our culture reserves for Art is fundamentally misguided. Games deserve their own Pedestal Of Significance, equally high but separate.
The whole "is it Art" question is a red herring. Ebert, and the gamers who argued with him, are asking the wrong questions and looking in the wrong places.
The Generic Eurogame
Played a whole bunch of Agricola and a bit of Dominion lately. I like Dominion's fast play (turns are very short) and its customizability. I like Agricola for the way the options gradually increase as the game goes on, for the scoring that emphasizes getting a variety of crops, and for the "you want to grow your family but not faster than you can feed them all" tension.
They're both fun games, but beneath the novel mechanics they both feel a little bit too... familiar.
You've got a menu of options in front of you for stuff that you can buy using the limited number of resources you have every turn. Some of these options increase the efficiency of your resource-producing economic engine and therefore have expected future payoff. Others don't help you increase efficiency but are worth the victory points you need to win the game, so you need to balance between building up your engine and preparing to be ahead in victory points when the game ends. Interaction with other players is extremely limited - except for a very few special cards, basically the ONLY way you affect each other is by competing for similar resources, i.e. if I take thing X then it means you can no longer take thing X, or you have to wait until next turn to take it, or thing X costs more for you to take.
What game does that paragraph describe? Besides Agricola and Dominion, could it be Puerto Rico? Race for the Galaxy? Power Grid? Probably lots more Eurogames I'm forgetting at the moment?
Sometimes I feel like these are all minor variations or reskins of essentially the same game.
The main strategy in all of these games revolves around estimating when the game is going to end and picking the right time to switch from a focus on boosting your own efficiency to a focus on grabbing victory points before the game ends.
That's why variable game-ending conditions are so important in these type of games - they make it harder to guess how many actions you have remaining and therefore make the trade-off between VPs now and VPs later into more of a judgment call. There's fixed number of turns but with variable actions in each one (Agricola), there's depletion of shared resource pool (Puerto Rico, Dominion), and there's end conditions that a player can unilaterally trigger by passing some threshold (Race for the Galaxy, Puerto Rico, Power Grid).
The essential similarity is obscured by a whole lot of different types of currency and resources and efficiency synergies and secondary mechanics that alter the value of various goods - Coal! Uranium! Corn! Sugar! Gold! Provinces! Cattle! Stone! Oh look if I get the basketmaker's workshop than I can turn reed into victory points, and nobody else is getting reed so lots of it is available cheap! Oh if I build this Galactic Empire card then all these military planets will be worth more VPs! Do I have enough cash to buy this power plant AND expand to more cities? Do I have enough people actions to build a room in my house AND feed everyone by the harvest?
The main differences are in the details of the actions that you use to make resource transactions - e.g. when other people take an option does it block you from doing the same (Agricola), help you do the same but not as well (Puerto rico, Race for the galaxy), make it more expensive for you to do the same (Power Grid) or have basically no effect on you (Dominion)? Can you get the ability to make more transactions per turn (having babies in Agricola, extra buys in Dominion)?
Also, each game has its own way of adding uncertainty and variable cost so that the game is not completely solvable. Power Grid has the auction element, Dominion and Race for the Galaxy have the randomness of the deck shuffle, Agricola has the uncertainty of which action will become available next, and Puerto Rico has the shuffled plantation tiles. Agricola, Puerto Rico, and Power Grid all have resources that accumulate turn after turn, making a transaction more efficient the longer it goes unclaimed. Every game has options that give you bonus resources for certain transactions or otherwise decrease the cost of other options.
I'm not saying that these are completely trivial differences, but generally the skillset and thought process for evaluating potential moves are very similar across all of these games.
I enjoy these games. There's often a lot of cleverness in the details which is fun to puzzle out. But they often feel kind of like multiplayer solitaire and leave me longing a game with more direct player interaction, more uncertainty, more bluffing, or some kind of geometry to the board that enables positioning tactics. Something extra beyond just resource management that elevates it above the Standard Eurogame Template.
Reasons I like Warmachine/Hordes better than Warhammer 40k
If you don't want to read me praising Warmachine/Hordes, or dissing Warhammer 40k, or generally geeking out about minis wargames, turn back now!
This post is strictly about game design. I'm not talking about the ethics or business sense of either Privateer Press or Games Workshop, not today anyway.
"Warmahordes" refers to the entire conglomo-game that is Warmachine + Hordes. "40k" means Warhammer 40,000.
- Smaller armies
One of the things that draws people to 40k is the sheer spectacle of two large, painted armies facing each other. If you like the feeling of an epic clash between giant armies for the fate of a planet, well then 40k is going to be more your game than Warmahordes. For my part, I like the fact that in Warmahordes every model is significant. Paint a handful of new Warmahordes models and I can have a new list with very different gameplay. Paint that many new 40k models and all I've got is a few extra wound counters to take off the table as soon as the ordnance starts flying.
With less stuff to buy and paint in Warmahordes, you can either get your army done quicker OR spend more individual attention on making each model look good.
- More balanced armies
Warmahordes has no "default" army like Space Marines. The ubiquity of Space Marines in 40k is just silly because it seems like half of all games are Space Marine vs. Space Marine. They're all supposed to be on the same side! Why are they fighting each other?
At the recent Warmahordes tournament I saw every army represented about equally.
Each new expansion to Warmachine or Hordes adds choices to every army at the same time in order to keep them in balance. So there's no out-of-date armies like there are in 40k. It's not like PP is doing anything special with their updates - it's really the minimum we should expect from any competent game company; it's just that GW handle their updates so very badly that PP looks good by comparison.
Games Workshop is the only game company I know that comes out with a new core ruleset and doesn't update every faction to the new ruleset together. They update them piecemeal, one at a time. The less popular 40k armies go years without an update. Sisters of Battle and Necrons are still on their 3rd edition codexes even though the 5th edition of the core rules came out 2 years ago! Much of the rules text in those 3rd-edition books was written to interact with core rules that no longer exist, meaning that exactly what effect those abilities have in play now is just a big open question mark.
And because the power level of GW codexes seems to creep upward over time -- or at any rate, the points cost per model is creeping downward, which amounts to the same thing -- the older codices can't compete with the newer ones.
Of course Space Marines get a codex update instantly after each new edition. And then half of the codices that come out are for minor Space Marine variants - Blood Angels, Dark Angels, Black Templars, Space Wolves, and Grey Knights. The release schedule roughly alternates between Space Marine and Non-Space-Marine factions. If you don't want to play Space Marines (maybe because the ideal they represent is essentially Fascism?) then you're out in the cold.
- Less focus on listbuilding
Most of the internet's 40k strategy articles are about building a better list. There's a good reason for that - most of 40k's strategy is in the listbuilding. In 40k, listbuilding is complicated because there are like a zillion options for every unit (most of them too crappy to consider, but still). But once you've deployed, the tactics are pretty basic - the list almost plays itself. I feel like 60% of victory or defeat in 40k comes down to the matchup of the lists (and most of the rest is deployment and luck of the dice).
In Warmahordes I feel like more of the choices are during the game. There are still good matchups and bad matchups, but there's more you can do to mitigate matchup with skill during the game. Listbuilding is simpler because point costs are lower, each unit has only one or two options, and there are no mandatory choices or "force org" chart. Most importantly, when I lose at Warmahordes, I don't feel the urge to change my list up - I feel the urge to learn to play my list better!
If you give a "good" Warmahordes list to a new player, they won't have a clue what to do with it, because its power doesn't lie in the raw stats of the units, but in their interactions and the tactical possibilities that they open up.
While listbuilding can be fun, it's a solitary activity. These days I prefer my gameplay to focus on what happens at the gaming table with the other players.
- More options during play.
In 40k you can't shoot into a melee, can't shoot out of a melee, can't voluntarily run away from a melee, etc. If you've got a 20-man unit and the enemy's got a 20-man unit then as soon as one of your models' bases touches the edge of one of his model's bases, the entirety of both units are "in melee" and everybody in both units suddenly loses the ability to walk anywhere else, shoot, or be shot at. It's arbitrarily restrictive game design.
In Warmahordes you CAN fire into a melee, but at -4 and with a chance of hitting your own guys: a harsh but fair penalty. You can voluntarily run away, but the enemy gets a free boosted back strike on you. Most of the time it's not worth it to fire into melee or to run away, but once in a while it is.
There are other examples too. A fleeing unit in 40k runs a random distance towards your side of the board. In Warmahordes a fleeing unit can't do anything except run, and it can't run towards an enemy, but aside from that you get to decide how far and which direction it runs, so you can at least retreat intelligently. Models in a unit have much more independence than in 40k; they can spread out more, one of them can be shooting at one enemy while his squad-mate is in melee with a different enemy, etc.
I greatly prefer the game design philosophy of "you can do tht but there's a steep penalty" vs. a flat "no you can't do that", because the need to evaluate the risk/reward of such actions adds more skill to the game and opens up more opportunities for creative plays.
In 40k I used to play Tau. That was in 4th edition when after winning a close combat you could "consolidate" into base contact with another unit, thus jumping from one close combat to another. Tau die to anything (even Guardsmen) in close combat. As soon as somebody got into close combat with one of my units, they would just roll down my line chewing up everything. Because there was no option to run away or to shoot them, there was literally nothing I could do once the assaults started. And it seemed like every army I played against had some trick to get into close combat with me early. I remember a first-turn charge from the one and only time I played a Dark Eldar army. Great, I'm so glad I spent all that time painting all these pieces so I could take them off the table and put them back in the box before they get a chance to do a single thing.
In Warmahordes I always feel like I have a lot of options. At least there's always something I can *try*, even if it's got a low chance of working. Even when I'm down to my last few models, maybe I can't win but at least I can spend all my focus on some crazy, one-in-a-million chance at an asassination run and end the game with a bang. And that brings me to...
- Warcaster / Warlock asassination. The warlock of a Hordes army or warcaster of a Warmachine army (collectively called a "warnoun") is like your king in chess. If you kill the enemy warnoun, you win. All of the tactics of the game revolve around this: Defensively, you need to protect your caster, and offensively, you need to find a way past the enemy defenses with something capable of taking the caster out.
Since your warnoun has powerful spells capable of changing the course of battle, and those spells have limited range, there is a constant tension between moving your caster forward to use their spells vs. keeping them back for safety. There is also a tension between attacking your enemy's army to reduce their hitting power (attempting to win through attrition) and trying to go straight for the warnoun (win through asassination).
Planning a combination of moves that might resut in asassination takes some foresight and some flying by the seat of your pants. It's an opportunity for creative, memorable plays. It's also high-risk, high-reward (since you're comitting so much to the asassination, you will probably lose if it fails) which makes it very exciting. Finally, you can win through asassination even if you're far behind in terms of objectives or army attrition; this creates opportunities for a skilled player to make a come-from-behind win. A typical design problem for purely attrition-based wargames is that being the first to damage the enemy's army puts you at a huge advantage as it takes away their ability to retaliate. Once you start losing pieces you go into a death spiral, which isn't fun gameplay. Caster kill means that it is often worth it to sacrifice all the rest of your army if it can get you into position for your caster to kill theirs.
Army leadesr in 40k (called HQs) are merely super-units (sometimes with list building benefits) but have no special game signficance. The basic objective of gameplay is to kill more of the enemy's army than he kills of yours (although to be fair this is modified in location-based objective games). I personally find this rather dull and one-dimensional compared to the intrigue of caster-kill.
- Resource management. Warmachine warcasters have a pool of Focus which they can spend to cast spells and power their giant robots, as well as a few other tricks. (The equivalent resource for Hordes warlocks is called Fury and works in a different way, but let's not get into that right now.) You never have enough focus points to do everything you want, which means you always face tough choices between casting spells, boosting jacks, getting extra attacks for your caster, saving the focus to increase your armor, etc.
These decisions are key to victory. A game where you feed most of your focus to jacks plays out very differently from one where you put most of it into casting spells. Judging how to spend it on any given turn is a difficult skill, especially since you have to allocate to jacks at the beginning of your turn before you know how any of your die rolls are going to go. This adds a large element of risk/reward evaluation -- giving maximum focus to a jack can be a game-winning move or a complete waste of focus depending on whether you manage to set up that charge or not. Often after a loss I think "if only I had allocated my focus differently on that last turn". As I said, it's not your list, it's how you play your list, and focus management is one of the reasons why.
40k has some characters with psychic powers, but there's no equivalent resource management aspect to its gameplay. The drawback of 40k psychic powers is that you might get your brain eaten by demons from the Warp, but that's just a random die roll - your only choice is to use the power or not.
- Different warnoun = completely different play experience. Each warnoun has a unique feat and a unique spell list, in addition to special weapons and other abilities. Some are offensive, some defensive. Some want to get up close and personal, others want to sneak around firing off spells, others want to stay behind their army casting buffs on it. Changing your warnoun changes how you play and how you maneuver. Their bag of tricks is so powerful that you build your list around it. Change warnouns and it's time to re-evaluate how you use all of your other models. That jack that's only good as a wall in one caster's list might become an asassination threat with a different caster in control.
If you get bored of a Warmahordes army, you can buy a single new warnoun model, swap it in, and you've got something that plays like a new army. There's no equivalent in 40k. Most 40k leaders are just grunts with better stats. If you want a different play experience, you need to build a completely new army.
- Rock-em-sock-em robots. Besides warcasters and infantry units, Warmachine has magical steam-powered giant robots called Warjacks. (The Hordes equivalent are Warbeasts.) You can play an infantry-heavy army with maybe one or two jacks for support. Or if you love giant robots as much as I do you can build an army that's mostly or entirely jacks. (I probably would have liked Battletech, but it was popular before my time and nobody plays it anymore.)
Jack-on-jack fighting in Warmahordes is fun because of all the different moves you can do - headlocks, armlocks, slams, throws, pushes, headbutts, and tramples, spending focus on charging, running, boosting to hit, boosting damage, and extra attacks; and that's *before* you factor in the special abilities and weapons of particular jacks and all the spells their casters can use on them. Warjacks have damage locations that can cripple certain systems (it's the most streamlined damage-by-location system I've ever encountered, by the way - it slows down gameplay barely at all). Sometimes have to figure out how to make best use of a warjack who can't use its best weapon because that arm was cripppled.
It's a lot more exciting than 40k's vehicular combat. Yes, vehicles in 40k can have weapons destroyed, can explode, can be forced to disembark their passengers, are more vulnerable from behind, etc. But most of these effects are simply random and are not the outcome of choices made by the players. There's also no such thing as an all-mecha 40k army because 40k always mandates 2 units of Troops per army.
- Exception-based design. Warmachine learned the right lessons from Magic: the Gathering's rules design. Almost every unit has some kind of special ability, so the interactions can get quite complicated. But the core rules are designed to handle and explain these interactions. Every ability has situations where it's useful, other abilities that it synergizes with, and abilities that counter it, and when two rules seem to interact in a weird way you can always look at the fine print and figure out what happens.
In 40k, back when I played, there was a Chaos spell called Lash of Submission that let you move some of your enemy's infantry. It was game-breaking because the rest of the game was not designed with this possibility in mind - unless your army had access to psychic hoods or you put all your guys in vehicles, there was no way to counter it, and a forced move threw off the timing that the rest of the game balance rested on. It also raised a ton of unanswerable rules questions because being moved out of turn was not something that other rules were designed to mesh with.
In Warmahordes, the game is designed for effects that move models outside their activation, so it is very clear exactly how this works. Every army has access to abilities that move enemy units, as well as abilities to make extra moves with their own units and various other abilities that can be used to counteract or nullify a forced move. It's an integrated part of the game instead of an unbalanced one-off.
- Sequential activation.
In 40k everything moves, then everything shoots, then everything assaults. This means there's no such thing as using one unit to create an opportunity for another - you just move everything together to make the best of the opportunities that exist at the beginning of your turn.
In Warmahordes you choose the order for your models to activate, and you do everything with one model/unit before activating another. It seems like a small difference, but this flexibility allows you to use one model to set things up for another model -- if you plan ahead well enough and activate them in the right order.
One model might knock down a target for another to hit more easily. It might push or throw an enemy into range of another model's attack. You might need one unit to power up another with a buff or maybe just to get out of the way so a charge becomes possible. This is especially important because almost every model has one or more special abilities that you can use to create combo attacks.
Sequential activation creates opportunities for creative plays and for the more skilled player to triumph. Oftentimes when I lose I'm like "Oh, I should have had this guy go first on my last turn so I could have done this other thing..."
- Competitive attitude. The 40k community tends to have strong opinions on "fluffy" vs. competitive gaming. It is actually frowned upon to build the most effective list you can because this involves "spamming" a.k.a. having multiples of the most effective units. It is considered better form to make a "fluffy" list, i.e. one based on the 40k background (or your made-up background for your personal army) and what units that faction "would" take. It's essentially a simulationist attitude (if this can be understood to apply to non-roleplaying games) where what is being simulated is the 40k universe. This attitude is partly a response to the fact that 40k isn't really designed for competitive gaming. Most codices have choices that are so clearly inferior to others that they would never be taken apart from fluffy reasons. More positively, the emphasis on fluffy lists reflects the fact that the 40k background setting is really cool, one of the best in gaming, and daydreaming about that background is one of the best things about 40k. Unfortunately there's a lot of frustration because exactly what makes a list "fluffy" is impossible to define, and fluffy lists generally lose to optimized lists unless somebody rolls really badly.
What it boils down to is having to listen to 40k players whining "waaa waaa my opponent took three Wraithlords, that's so cheesy and it's not realistic because each Eldar Craftworld only has a few Wraithlords and would never deploy them all to the same planet at once!"
Lame. Three Wraithlords is a completely legal choice by the book. But instead of people going "Hey, Wraithlords are pretty strong for their point cost, maybe this game isn't balanced well" they blame their opponent for being "cheesy".
Some 40k tournaments even have an "army composition" score, which means that your army list gets ranked on this imaginary "fluffy" vs. "cheesy" scale by a panel of judges - or sometimes even voted on by your opponents! - according to completely arbitrary, subjective, and undocumented criteria. I'm not making this up! Can you imagine bullshit like that in any other game?
Maybe people don't care about "fluffy" in Warmahordes because its background fiction (aka "fluff") is nowhere near as cool or interesting as 40k's. The Warmahordes fluff is fairly disappointing, actually - a fantasy world undergoing an industrial revolution is such a cool premise, but the writers do nothing interesting with it.
But at least Warmahordes is properly designed for competitive play! There are fewer (I won't say zero) auto-includes or never-includes in any of the army lists in Warmahordes. Sure, some units are seen more frequently, but the value of a unit depends a lot more on its synergies with the other things in the list, so there is some kind of use for almost everything. I've never heard anybody complain about their opponent's army list being "cheesy" or insufficiently "fluffy". They just say "Oh, nice combo you got there", then roll up their sleeves and figure out how to beat it. At the tournament I was at people congratulated each other on good moves and talked about learning to play better.
The infamous Page Five of the Warmachine rulebook lays out a "No whining!" social contract. Once you get done rolling your eyes at the ridiculous testosterone on display, Page Five is like a manifesto for a "Step On Up" agenda. There's no question whether Warmahordes should be played with a gamist attitude or a simulationist attitude - it's pure gamism all the way and no apologies, which I find refreshing.
- The models actually correspond to the rules. 40k, having been around for many years and through many editions, has an endemic problem with this. There are models that no longer have stats, and there are units in the books that don't have models. The plastic guns that come in the box don't correspond to the weapon options that the unit has in the rules. It's a minor frustration, but it's a frustration.
The up-side of 40k's model ambiguity is that it invites creative model custimization to represent model-less units. One of the best things about 40k in general is that converting custom models is easy and fun due to the many multi-part plastic kits that include lots of extra bits. Warmahordes doesn't support kit-bashing nearly as well since most of the models are metal and come with only the parts they need.
But at least Warmahordes has a one-to-one correspondence between models and rules! Each model even comes with a stats card when you buy it, which is great for playability and means you don't have to buy the army book for the stats if you don't want it. It's a sensible system.
- Human faces and personalities. OK this is a really minor aesthetic quibble, but look: I like painting minis with human faces. They have more individual character.
In 40k you're either working for the Imperium of Man or you're some kind of hideous chaos mutant and/or faceless alien menace. The Orks have some individual character, I guess, but if you play one of the other factions get ready to paint a lot of identical helmets or skull heads! Fighting to prop up a decrepit theocratic totalitarian state doesn't appeal to me, but if I want to paint people with faces then that's the side I've got to fight for.
Warmahordes has multiple human factions (plus elves, dwarves, trolls, etc.) that have different philosophies, styles, and goals, but they're all people with faces.
- Female soldiers This is another minor aesthetic quibble. It annoys me that most 40k armies are exclusively male (the Space Marines proudly and explicitly so). The Imperium's attitude towards women is the classic madonna/whore dichotomy: if you want women soldiers you're either playing Daemonettes of Slaanesh, who are grotesque monsters with naked boobies! or you're playing Sisters of Battle, who are literally NUNS! IN! SPACE! Nuns with power armor. That has pointy crosses across the boobs. Remember kids, the female body is evil and must be restrained or else Chaos will take over!
In the 40k universe, Orks are all male and reproduce by spores, the Tau Empire has exactly one female, the Tyranids are sexless bug monsters, the Necrons are skeleton robots but are still coded as masculine, the Space Marine genetic enhancement regime only works on people with Y chromosomes, the Imperial Guard only employs men... apparently the Eldar/Dark Eldar are the only race who let women into their regular army.
Now I'm not going to proclaim Warmahordes is some kind of paragon of feminism. It still features the kind of slutty outfits for female characters that sadly seem to be par for the course in fantasy games designed by men. Especially the evil characters. (What part of a Cryxian War-Witch's job description requires her to bare her midriff exactly?)
But hey, look at this: Every single faction has a mix of male and female warcasters to choose from. Khador has three female warcasters, they're all dressed sensibly, they're all in poses that emphasize their competence and not their sexiness, and one of them is an old lady even. And the troops that they can lead: one of the four Widowmaker sniper models is a woman. So is one of the Manhunters, one of the Kossite Woodsmen, the unit leader of the Winter Guard... almost like women are just a normal part of the Khador army, even if a minority. The Trollbloods' female warlocks are unapologetically big and chubby and aren't portrayed as hideous because of it. There's even a female dwarf! Amazing!
No, wait, it's not amazing. It's, like, the bare minimum we should expect from representation in our fantasy gaming.
The True Sandbox Game
Minecraft is brilliant. It's the best video game I've played in years. It's my new favorite.
It's absolutely amazing that this game was pretty much written by one guy - a mysterious Swedish dude who goes by "Notch" - as a labor of love.
It's still in beta. There are bugs. Especially in multiplayer. Multiplayer requires running your own server or joining somebody else's server. There's no canonical Minecraft world, but a multiverse of personal worlds. It's like IRC or other early internet protocols before everything got centralized all to hell.
Running the server involves allocating like 1.8 gigabytes of memory to the Java virtual machine. Yes, it's in Java. The answer to "have there been any good programs written in Java" is now "Yes, one".
Above: Sadly, I can't make my socks two differnet colors as there is only one leg texture, repeated twice.
Anyway, there are bugs, but the bugs are part of the wierd charm. Players invent machines based on exploiting bugs. Boats float to the top of waterfalls instead of being pushed down by them as you would expect. So players build boat-and-waterfall based elevator systems. If the bugs were fixed now, they would break everything people have made. So it's not so much that the game is buggy as that some of its best features were discovered rather than designed.
I'm slightly surprised Minecraft isn't open-source. I bet a lot of people would be thrilled to be able to submit patches to the project. Also, Minecraft costs 15 Euros. What? Paying money for an unfinished game? Crazy, I know, but even in its unfinished state it's well worth 15 Euros.
Above: CREEPER IS WATCHING YOU SLEEP.
Minecraft is similar to Dwarf Fortress in many ways: a vast, randomly generated world, simulated in great detail, with minerals at various depths that can be mined out and turned into useful tools for technological development.
But Minecraft is far more accessible than Dwarf Fortress. Partly because the graphics are more, shall we say, representational. Partly because you interact with the Minecraft world from first-person, with your avatar's own hands, whereas you look down on the Dwarf Fortress world from above while issuing suggestions to a bunch of stubborn beardy guys who may or may not be in the mood to do what you say.
But also because Minecraft has a very simple set of verbs: walk, jump, hit/mine a block, put a block, make an item, use an item. That's it! Everything you do, from digging an iron mine to building an elaborate roller coaster, is composed of those verbs. Dwarf Fortress has as many obscure commands as a Linux shell.
Above: I left my door open when I left my house. I came back to find a cow, a sheep, and a chicken partying on my bed.
Here's what Minecraft doesn't have: Quest chains. NPCs who assign you repetitive jobs in exchange for paltry reward. Deadlines, milestones, incentives, checkpoints, prerequisites, carefully balanced power curves, deliberately designed progressions. Screens of statistics. Management interfaces. All the stuff, found in hundreds of video games, that makes them feel like work.
Minecraft is play. Not in the sense of "playing" a game, but more like the play that children do when they play outside or play with toys. You were a kid once (or maybe you still are). Remember how you used to play in your backyard? You explore, you build cool forts, you chase animals, you run away from "monsters", you make "swords" out of sticks and wave them around, you dig holes, you hunt for "treasure", you play house, you try to find neat things to put in your "house" to make it special. If it's been a while since you played like that, Minecraft will bring it all back to you.
Above: zombie mosh pit!
Forget Grand Theft Auto. That's not "sandbox". That's merely a mission-based game that happens to have a large world and a lot of optional sidequests. Minecraft is the real sandbox. Almost literally - you could flatten out the land like the sand in a sandbox, or dig a giant hole and use the resulting blocks to build a mountain.
Minecraft is fun to the extent to which you set your own goals. If you didn't set your own goals it would get boring very fast. Luckily I have no problem setting my own goals, not when the world of Minecraft seems so rich with possibilities. In fact I usually have three or four goals at any one time: right now I want to find a wolf and tame it to be my pet, I want to perfect my two-way minecart transport system, I want find enough diamond to make a suit of armor out of it, I want to grow enough sugarcane to make a bookshelf (paper is made from sugarcane, go figure) and I want to build an awesome undersea base with a glass dome accessible by tunnel.
While pursuing your goal, you'll run into all sorts of memorable and hilarious misadventures:
Getting ambushed by suicidally explosive Creepers. Making a corpse run without any torches to try to recover all the sweet loot you dropped. Digging upwards from a mine and accidentally poking through the sea floor. Getting lost outside at night and not being able to find your house. Digging downwards and breaking through into a magma lake. Finding diamond and not being able to get it because you just wore out your last iron pick. Trying to start a fire and burning down a whole forest. Having your minecart tracks blocked by cows. Having all the ingredients but one for that item you want to make and scouring the land for that last piece of string or whatever.
Sushu had a skeleton archer take up ambush position in her basement once. She couldn't go in the house without getting shot to death. And all her weapons were in there. My first few attempts to rush in there and kill it, armed with a wooden sword made from a tree, were failures. By the time I finally killed it the ground was littered with wooden swords.
I myself managed to collect enough gold to make a solid gold block, which I put up on the roof of my house to show off. Then I decided I wanted to move it, so I tried to collect it with my bare hands... turns out I could have used the pick in my inventory to collect the block, but by trying to do it with my bare hands, I made the block break without dropping anything. My nine gold, wasted because I punched it to death!
These misadventures are oddly satisfying. And they all emerge organically from the game systems; none of them were planned. Once I start playing Minecraft, it's hard to stop, because I have so many different projects going on in-game and something interesting is always happening. I always want to play just a little longer because there's one more thing I want to try.
Have game designers been doing it all wrong all these years? Trying to make all these goals and storylines and levels and linear progression mechanisms? Maybe all we ever needed was an open-ended environment where we could make our own fun.
Will Wright knew this. I remember many years ago, reading his description of SimCity as not a "game" but rather a "software toy". Minecraft is in the same spirit as those sim games, from SimCity to The Sims. Mess around. Set your own goals. Tell your own story.
The biggest flaw in Minecraft's game design as it stands is that it's not self-contained. Without reading external documentation it would be nearly impossible to figure out how to craft anything or even how to survive the night. No hand-holding tutorials in this game. Thank goodness for the Minecraft Wiki. I do feel like it spoils some of the discovery. But I'm not sure how I would ever have stumbled on some of the more obscure crafting recipies without reading the spoilers - the number of possible crafting combinations are astronomical, only a tiny sliver of them produce anything useful, and nothing in the game gives you a hint what those combinations could be.
I feel like it would be a stronger game design if it was self-contained, if it was possible to discover the game without spoilers or walkthroughs. But I'm not sure how they'd even do that without compromising the crafting system or cluttering up the game world with tutorials and breadcrumbs and hints and recipe books. I quite like the fact that when you start the game thre's no intros or tutorials; no intermediation. Just your bare hands and a giant wilderness. It's very primal.
Above: There are five creepers in this scene. Can you find them all?
That's because the fifth one is RIGHT BEHIND YOU.
Minecraft is a great game. Let's define that: "A great game" is not merely one that induces you to play it for long periods of time. That's merely an addictive game. A great game is one that's addictive and that also teaches you new ways of thinking while you're playing it. The way playing Tetris for a long time makes you mentally rearrange furniture and buildings to form complete lines, or playing Katamari Damacy makes you look at things and calculate how big you'd need to be to roll them up. Minecraft makes you want to harvest cubical chunks of your floor and put torches everywhere to hold back the darkness. Even better, it teaches you to think of your environment as raw materials to make cool stuff out of. As an approach to life, that one's not bad.
A simple platform game
In less than 2 weeks, I'm going to London for the Mozilla Festival where I was invited to present on the topic of HTML 5 game development.
Well, I'd better have a game to show off, haven't I. So I took one of the examples from my old P2PU course and turned it into something a little more interesting.
Go here to try playing it. Left and right arrows to move, space bar to jump. The object is to get to the square labeled "goal" in the shortest amount of time. It should work in any modern browser. (Please let me know if you can't get it to run.)
So far, pretty boring. But now here's the interesting part. Go here, put in a name, and click Create Level. Then click the "Edit" link next to it.
This interface obviously needs work, but you can use the radio buttons to select a tool, and then use the tools to scroll around, create and delete platforms, and set the start position and goal position. Click "Save Changes" and then go back to the level-select screen and try playing your new level.
When I was a kid, one of my favorite activities (besides playing video games) was to take a long sheet of paper and design new levels along with the occasional new game mechanic. How I wished I could turn those drawings into real playable levels! Now that I know how, why not put it on the web where anybody who comes along can draw a level?
Planned features include: recording the best completion times for each level, so there's an object of competition; a login, so that it knows who the high scores belong to and who created each level; maybe a rating system so you can let people know if their level was fun or not; and... oh yeah, monsters and power-ups would be nice. Some moving platforms and trees and clouds etc. so it's not just boring brown rectangles.
I'll be cramming in some of those features over the next two weeks (and doubtless I'll still be adding stuff on the airplane). The plan is to arrive at the Mozilla Festival with a sturdy game skeleton and then run a game-development workshop where participants flesh it out with artwork, sounds, features, and level design.
But for now, try making a level! Report a bug! Download the source code! And please, please, let me know if you think of a good name for this thing. (Edit Nov 8, 2011 - link updated.)
OK this really needs a name. And a domain.
I've done a bunch more work on that platform game. Now at evilbrainjono.net/platformer; the old link won't work.
I've added background music and sound effects, background images and platform textures, and the ability to customize any of these things plus customize your own character animations just by pasting in a URL to an image or sound file. There are monsters now, which kill you in two hit points, there are Pointless Trinkets to collect and a couple of rudimentary power-ups, new types of platforms, and numerous physics improvements.
I ran a hack session at the Mozilla Festival and got some really amazing contributions to the game from participants -- new monster graphics, animations, moving platforms, physics tweaks, jumping monsters, a button that opens a trapdoor, and more! One guy even adjusted the control scheme to make it playable on his iPhone in about 15 minutes. (This is the really great thing about making games on the web: you don't have to care what operating system your players have and you don't have to care about app-store approval. The platform is no obstacle.) All of this in about 2 hours; it was a nuclear chain reaction of creativity. You can try out most of these new contributions in the level editor.
I folded all the new stuff into a demo level and showed it off on stage in front of 600-ish people during the closing session. I talked about using it as a vehicle for teaching kids game design, animation, and (once I get the monster/power-up/obstacle source-code-editor working) programming. Doesn't have to be kids, either; it can be for anybody who's new to these things.
The reaction was way more than I expected, and after the presentations were over there were like three different people who wanted to interview me for their blogs and podcasts. Anyway long story short this project is suddenly getting a lot of incoming attention and I need to put it on a real domain instead of hanging it off the side of evilbrainjono.net.
So, like, I really really need to pick a good name now and register a URL. I need your help! The following URLs are all unclaimed as of today. Do you like any of them? Or do you have other suggestions?
New instance of the platform game builder is now up and running at runjumpbuild.com.
I've set it to report errors on login failure, so if your login is rejected, could you please mail me with the error message? It will help me debug whatever the problem is that keeps people from logging in.
I have made the physics constants (gravity, friction, acceleration, jump power, and max speed) editable in the level editor. So you can make the low-grav moon level or the low-friction ice level or whatever. If you tweak these numbers and come up with something you think is better than the default set in terms of the feeling of control over the character, let me know and I can make it the new default set!
Oh, and if you're tired of being a sticklyman, try setting your avatar image URL to elf.png or running_petunia_frames.png. You can also set the tileset URL to tileset.png which will apply some textures to the platforms and trinkets.
Game design, music, and storytelling
Games: We start by telling the players the win condition, so they understand what they're trying to do. Each player forms a strategy which they think will take them to victory and then chooses moves according to that strategy. But their desired moves are blocked by the opponent's moves, or are stymied due to random factors, or hidden information, so the player has to rethink their strategy on the fly. This increases the tension as the players are forced to make difficult choices, with the chance of victory riding on the outcome.
Music: The initial notes establish the key of the piece, letting the listener hear the tonic and the root chord. The melody and chord progression take us farther and farther away from that starting point, while creating a tension that can only be resolved by returning to the tonic / root chord again. E.g. the chorus of a typical rock song might have chords C -> F -> G -> G7, setting up a tension which makes the listener desire resolution. Then it goes back to the C chord at the end of the chorus, satisfying that desire.
(The listener doesn't have be able to consciously identify the chords or even know what a chord is - it still works. It's magic.)
Storytelling: Exposition in Act 1 introduces the protagonist and sets up their motivation, so the reader knows who to root for and what's at stake; they expect that the resolution of the story will see the protagonist either getting the stakes or not. Act 2 increases the tension, using complications to challenge the protagonist, put the resolution in doubt, and force some character development. Each complication raises new questions in the reader's mind. Act 3 has some sort of climax, the moment of maximum tension, where the protagonist faces some life-defining decision and whatever was motivating them finally gets resolved.
I'm sure you can think of exceptions to these simple schematics: non-western music may not have a root chord, some computer games deliberately obfuscate the goal in order to create more of a feeling of discovery, etc. Whatever. I'm not going for comprehensive definitions right now.
What I'm saying is: see a parallel here? The ending gives meaning and direction to everything that comes before it, so the game designer/musician/storyteller must hint at the ending. But it's the tension that makes things interesting, and the tension comes from the frustrated desire of the player/listener/reader. To create tension the game designer/musician/storyteller must tease an ending but deny the obvious path to that ending.
We even use the same language - "tension" and "resolution" - to talk about all three art forms.
Why Settlers is not my favorite game
I had a very painful game of Settlers of Cataan (cities & knights expansion) on Saturday which got me thinking about the problems with the design of that game. (I also got to play a fantastic samurai-themed Burning Wheel one-shot, and a fun round of the new D&D board game, so game day was mostly good.)
Settlers is insanely popular lately; it seems to be the one board game that even non-gamers have heard of and are willing to try. It's the new "Monopoly", in a way. I've even heard that it has replaced golf as the main schmoozing game for rich businessmen in Silicon Valley. It's much less terrible than Monopoly, in that it has the fun of trading and building without the pointless board-circling, and it's possible for a game to actually end. (The Monopoly rules might as well say "play until everyone gets bored, then quit. Nobody wins.") Settlers was a big step forward in game design in 1995, almost every Eurogame since then owes something to it, and it's worth playing and studying, but it's got some big problems which lead to un-fun gameplay situations.
The Kingmaker problem: towards the end of the game, you get into a situation where you can't win, but you can choose which of the other players will win by who you choose to throw your support behind. (in Settlers: who you trade with, whose roads you block, and who you put the robber on, basically).
Some game designers might not see kingmaking as a flaw, because it doesn't obviously break anything in terms of game math. You would have lost anyway, so what? The reason Kingmaking is a problem is social: having to be the kingmaker puts you in a really awkward spot socially, especially when the leading players start saying things like "I'll give you a cookie if you help me" or "You have to help me, I'm your wife". Now you are no longer playing a strategy game: you are playing the game of popularity-via-social-leverage, and most people got enough of that back in high school.
The Bucket O' Crabs problem: I am coining a phrase here. If you put a bunch of crabs in a bucket, as soon as one is close to crawling out, the other crabs will grab its legs and drag it back down.
The endgame of Settlers can drag on way too long, because as soon as one player is close to winning, everybody does everything possible to stop that player. How often have you heard "Don't trade with him, you'll help him win!" ? And when people stop trading in Settlers, the game slows to a crawl.
People know that the leader will be targeted, so nobody wants to be the leader. Everybody's vying for second place while trying to take the leader down. This drags things out even more.
The screwed-by-the-dice problem: sometimes a string of bad rolls means you don't get any resources for ten or eleven turns in a row. This tends to happen to the player with the fewest settlements/cities meaning that the player who's already farthest behind tends to fall even farther behind. But the worst part isn't the game balance issue - it's that Settlers is insanely boring when you don't have anything to do (except offer people trades you know they don't want) for thirty minutes. That's the kind of situation where you wish you could just drop out of the game and go do something else, but Settlers doesn't believe in player elimination. I wouldn't mind losing so much if there was at least something to do on my turns while I was losing.
Another form of screwed-by-the-dice is when you have the resources to build a city, but then lose them before you can spend them because somebody rolled a 7 and you were holding 8 cards. I know this rule is in the game to discourage card hoarding, but sometimes you're trying to spend cards and you just can't. There's no skill to it, you just get randomly hosed by the dice. It happens even more often in the cities & knights expansion because there are more kinds of cards to hold and more things you need to save up for.
Setting the end conditions for a multiplayer (n > 2) game turns out to be an extremely difficult design problem, if you want the game to remain fun for all players up until the last round. Most multiplayer games have some kind of weird issues with the endgame.
Grognard Capture, or "Why Sushu Can't Jump"
Watching our friend Chris play Mass Effect 3, me and Sushu were like "hey this looks like a cool choose-your-own-adventure story, too bad it keeps getting interrupted by these shooter levels". I'm kind of interested in the story but not interested enough to play shooter levels, which I suck at and don't enjoy. I would rather have a choose-your-own-adventure visual novel, you know?
"But", Sushu asks, "Would it still be a game without the shooter levels? If it was just dialogue choices?" Eh, maybe. I've got no interest in arguing about the definition of "game" but I would "play" something like that, whatever it is.
What I think is interesting is how the economics of video games effctively prevents a major game company from making a game that's just dialogue choices with no shooting. Indie games could do it (and they have). But in the realm of "AAA titles", game budgets continue to get higher and higher, development teams continue to get larger, and to recoup their investment they need something that gamers will pay $60 a pop for. So every AAA game needs to have a zillion hours of gameplay, insanely detailed 3D graphics, professional voice acting, numerous granular and highly crunchy subsystems, cutscenes, achievements, and other bells and whistles that have nothing to do with the core gamplay mechanic.
Like, Mass Effect apparently has a whole intricate weapon-customization subsystem with a zillion different kinds of high-tech guns? Chris kept picking up all these scopes and silencers and ammo clips and whatever. Why? The story's about the fate of galaxy-spanning civilizations, right? Do we really gotta spend this much time focusing on the exact kind of gun one particular person has?
I'm guessing market research shows that gamerdorks prefer games with detailed gun stats to games with less detailed gun stats, therefore AAA game economics require developers to put in more gun stats whenever possible.
Designer Greg Costikyan coined the phrase"Grognard Capture" to describe a process that all video game genres undergo. Fans of the genre complete lots of games, master the basic skills and demand more advanced challenges, more detail, etc. Later entries in the genre target those advanced players, skipping over the basic stuff. Eventually the genre evolves to where new games are completely unplayable to newbies.
I can observe the effects of grognard capture every time I watch Sushu try to play a game that involves jumping. She finds it frustrating and not fun at all. She fails repeatedly at jumps that I wouldn't even notice. This isn't her fault: it's the fault of game designers who assume everybody is good at jumping, because they've been playing jumping games since the 80s and have mastered every possible permutation of moving platforms and low cielings and overhangs and whatnot. Go back and study the level design of the original Super Mario Brothers and see how the first few levels hold your hand through the most basic types of jumps, gently teaching you the skills you'll need for later. It was an entry-level game; it assumed no prior experience. Too many of today's game designers seem to have forgotten how to do that.
And is it just me, or have (AAA) video games been getting more and more indistinguishable from each other? Action games, RPGs, and Adventure games used to be distinct genres. Now everything's a first-person 3D action game with character improvement mechanics and halfhearted puzzle quests. If AAA games are all one genre now, maybe this whole sector of the industry is undergoing grognard capture, turning into something that only appeals to a smaller and smaller group of hard-core "gamerz", and abandoning the much larger market of casual gamers (e.g. anyone not a 16-25 year old boy).
Braid, and "art" in game design
I just finished Braid today. (Found it for $10 in the Ubuntu Software Center. It runs on Linux now!)
It's a fun and original puzzle game, where you solve puzzles by rewinding time. The story is intriguing, the puzzle design is ingenious, the controls are tight, it's aesthetically pleasing, it's nonlinear enough that you can try a different world if you get stuck, and there's no filler. It deserves the praise it gets for being well-designed.
But unfortunately, through no fault of its own, Braid has been blown way out of proportion by gamers who want to prove that Video Games Can Too Be Art!!
I hate the argument about whether games can be art. It's tiresome and pointless. On one side we got people who are ignorant of video games, and even proud of being ignorant. Like the author of this Atlantic interview with Braid's creator, Jonathan Blow. (The interviewer introduces Blow's upcoming game "The Witness" as "what may be the most intellectually ambitious video game in history" ...then goes on to describe a game very similar to Myst, in a way that makes clear he's never heard of Myst.)
On the other side we got people who don't give a fig about art, but they long for video games to have artistic legitimacy so they can, I dunno, feel better about their hobby or something. (See, e.g., the commenters arguing with Roger Ebert.)
The art people don't understand gameplay, but they understand storytelling. They know how to analyze that, so that's what they analyze. And they point out, correctly, that most video games stories are violent, trivial cliche-fests. Then the gamers are like No! Wait! Look at this game over here! It's got an amazing story! VALIDATE ME WITH YOUR CRITICAL RECOGNITION, I BEG YOU!
Braid is one of a handful of such games regularly held up as candidates for Art. With its ambitious story, painterly graphics, violin music, etc, Braid has the aesthetics of something artistic. More significantly, there happens to be a metaphorical connection between the theme of the story and the main puzzle mechanic. This guy Tim, he's got regrets. He wishes he could turn back time and undo his mistakes. Most video games are strictly representational, so the use of metaphor is unusal. Also, the ending is really cryptic! (Cryptic endings = Art, right?)
But the actual game is just a side-scrolling puzzle game with a neat gimmick. Braid's story talks a lot about forgiveness. But note that the game is played by pushing a "jump" button, not a "forgive" button. If you're trying to win, you spend all your time thinking about how to line up that monster so you can bounce off its head and get the key, not thinking about how Tim's relationship with the "princess" went wrong.
The story of Braid is not the game of Braid, despite their metaphorical connection. There's one part, at the end of the last level, where the story and gameplay mesh in an interesting way. Other than that, the story is just some cryptic snippets of text presented between levels. They're very easy to ignore if you're not into them. You won't miss anything gameplay-wise if you skip reading them.
This is why I think looking for the "art" of a game in its story is a gigantic red herring. Say you made a game with story cutscenes so amazing that they rival the greatest works of film artistry. That still wouldn't make it an artistic game. It would make an artistic movie that keeps getting interrupted by a game. It doesn't tell us anything about whether the game parts would be artistic or not.
The essence of a videogame is a player making decisions about how to interact with a system in order to get closer to a desired outcome. Its effect on the player is via the thought processes the player has while trying to achieve the objective. Whatever the game asks the player to do to win, that's what the game is "about".
Braid - "Learn to picture yourself moving backwards in time"
Portal - "Imagine the possibilities of warping space"
Civilization - "Success or failure of societies depends on how their leaders choose to allocate resources and respond to crises." (The 'Great Man' theory of history.)
Adventure games - "Explore your environment thoroughly; you never know what might be useful!"
RPGs - "Put in a lot of time leveling up on easy stuff so you'll be strong enough for the big challenge when it comes". (also, "go into people's houses and take anything you can pick up".)
Action games - "Be quick or be dead"
Minecraft - this is an interesting one, since there's explicitly no goal. Minecraft says to me, "Life is what you make of it."
Non-video-game example: Chess. It's about outsmarting someone by predicting their reactions, several moves ahead. "To beat someone you must put yourself in their shoes".
Is chess "art"? Who cares? The question is meaningless to me. Would chess be art, if we painted the pieces beautiful colors and attached a narrative and a soundtrack? That's basically what the "are games art" argument is about. I hope you can see why it's a silly question.
Instead of "Is chess art?", how about: "Is chess an invaluable contribution to human culture which enriches the lives of those who choose to engage with it deeply?"
Most video games aren't very culturally significant or personally enriching, but I can think of a few that are. And unlike "making art", "significant/enriching" describes goals I can imagine how to aim for, as a game designer, through the gameplay itself.
How do we do that? Design gameplay that expresses something original and interesting, and not just a repetition of "be quick or be dead"? That is what I want to hear more about.
Losing at Go
I've still got a bunch to write about China, so you'll see some more China posts even though I'm back in America now.
In Lu Xun park I found a spot where lots of middle-aged folks hang out and play Go, cards, and Xiangqi (a Chinese chess variant). I hung around watching the Go players until one of them asked if I knew how to play and offered me a game.
Needless to say, I received a total curb-stomping. A senseless drubbing. I was PWNED, as they say.
The match went on longer than it should have just because I didn't know how to say "I surrender!" in Chinese.
I'm used to the Japanese scoring system (where you score only the empty points you have surrounded, and lose points for stones of yours that are captured). The Chinese scoring system counts every space you surround or occupy, and disregards captured stones. It makes for a very different game. With Japanese scoring, some engagements are not worth pursuing past a certain point, because the territory you can gain from it will be less than the cost of continuing the battle. The players will fence with each other and then one of them will back off. Chinese scoring encourages more of a brutal, close-quarters, knock-down-drag-out brawl.
A week or so later I had another opportunity to play, with a middle-aged woman who spoke decent English. At one point she said "That was a good move." I said "Thanks." She said "I meant MY move, your moves are bad." Ouch.
Trying to make conversation, I complemented her English and asked where she had learned, but she got offended. "When someone speaks English as well as me, you SHOULD ask: where do you TEACH?" she reprimanded me. Yeah, she was an English teacher. Later she lectured me that since all Shanghainese learn excellent English in school, it is "not proper" to ask someone how they learned.
After she had finished kicking my ass at Go she said that if I knew any good players, I should send them her way. She was one of the most arrogant people I've ever dealt with. It was a weird experience.
I played one more game with Sushu's cousin Kai-kai (aka Kevin). He was not as far above my level as the denizens of Lu Xun park, but he was still better than me. For a few minutes I thought I had him, but then his trap closed around me.
Go is an amazing game, probably the deepest non-random full-information strategy game ever devised by humans, but it demands insane amounts of dedication. It's also no fun to play against someone way above your level. Go is not a game you can just play casually once in a while. It makes me sad to admit this, but I'll probably never be good at it; it's just way more of a commitment than I want out of a leisure-time activity.
Chinese practice game (work in progress)
Remember when I said I was working on educational game software for learning Chinese? Here is a beta version:
Sushu's Mandarin 1 class is my first group of beta testers. All last week she was coming home from school and reporting bugs, which I'd try to fix as quickly as possible for the next day.
Thus far it's not very fun - it's just a set of practice tools. I've got the educational part, not so much the "game" part yet. It's also extremely bare-bones visually -- it lacks colors, images, animation, etc.
But it does offer the following features:
- Three practice modes: typing in pinyin, drawing hanzi, and listening.
- To make drilling more interesting, each round is timed and scored; you earn bonus points for speed and for getting a lot of words right in a row.
- It tracks how many times you've got each word right and wrong; the more you get a word right, the less often it reappears, while the words you've gotten wrong recur more frequently.
- See your scores with all words, including the words you are having the most trouble with.
- Study any set of words you want to study by uploading your own vocabulary set, which you can also make available to other students.
- For teachers, there's a page where you can see an overview of how every student in your class is doing with the words they've been assigned. So you can see what's giving the class the most trouble.
I've tested it on Firefox and Safari so far; the hanzi drawing works with a mouse, or with a finger on a touchscreen (e.g. iPad).
The pinyin-entry practice is very awkward. Currently you have to identify the tones by typing numbers. I want to replace that with something less artificial. Especially since pinyin itself is a poor proxy for pronunciation. Ideally I would want the student to be able to speak into their microphone and have the program grade their pronunciation, but that will be (as mathematicians say) Non-Trivial.
Drawing hanzi is currently graded on the honor system: You draw them, then it shows you the right ones, then you tell the program whether you got it right or not. I'm poking around with some possible handwriting-recognition code to automatically judge whether you wrote it right or not, because right now it's easy to cheat. Then again, if you cheat, you're only cheating yourself, so maybe it's OK the way it is?
Eventually I want to write "Learn Chinese: The RPG". The infrastructure I've been building so far is designed to support that as well as be a practice tool in its own right.
I'd love to hear some feedback from any readers who know enough Chinese to try out the beta version. (I think that's... two of you? Unless there are some lurkers I don't know about?) Thanks.
Channel A is a fantastic game
My friend Ewen invented a card game called Channel A where you make up pitches for anime series. We played the new high-quality-printed prototype on Sunday. It is a ton of fun!
Each round, one player takes the role of a producer of a TV station. They choose two premise cards to make a bizzare genre/setting combination. Like "Cyberpunk dystopia + Time travel" or "Space Opera + French Revolution"; this is they type of cartoon that the TV station wants to add to their lineup. Everybody else is making up a show to pitch to the producer. They have a hand of word cards that they can choose from to create a title for the show, and then they explain to everyone what their show is about and how it fits the desired genre.
Of course your hand is full of crazy words that don't go together, so inevitably all the titles imitate the over-the-top word-salad style that anime fans know all too well. Your show is probably called something like "Keichi 120% Lucky Lingerie" or "Super Fighting Fight Fighters EX"; how are you going to convince the table that "Future Vampire Ultra Peach" is not only a show about "high school romance" and "race car drivers", it's the best freakin' high school race car driver romance they'll ever see? An ability to think on your feet and spout ridiculous bullshit with a straight face is essential.
I was surprised that I like this game so much, since I generally hate "LOLrandom!" party games. Channel A is almost identical in form to the game "Apples to Apples". But Channel A is lots of fun for me, and Apples is painfully boring. What makes the difference?
Here's my theory: the reason "zany" party games make me bored is that it doesn't matter what I do. In Apples to Apples I don't do any better if I carefully choose cards than I do if I choose cards at random. (Same goes for Fluxx and Munchkin.) I find that boring because it feels like there's no reward for effort or for paying attention to the game. I'm not hyper-competitive; to enjoy a game, I don't have to win, but I do have to try my best to win; that's where the fun comes from, for me. Games where trying harder makes no difference don't keep my interest long.
But Channel A works for me because it rewards effort - creative effort. The cards are just a prompt; over and over I saw the player with a more genre-appropriate title lose to the player who improvised a better pitch.
Channel A reminds me of Baron Munchausen, in that neither are role-playing games but they exercise a very similar part of your brain to role-playing. There's a similar performance anxiety when your turn comes around. Improv is a demanding activity!
I was amazed at some of the pitches people came up with during this game. With only seconds to think about it, they pulled the most fascinating stuff out of nowhere. Sushu joined our game halfway through and after about ten seconds of explanation she was winning hands with her pitches for "Little Monkey Bride" (Chinese mythology + catgirls) and "Ninja Hearts Z" (tournament fighting + shonen ai), either of which I would totally watch if it was a real show. I was also hella impressed by Ewen's ability to make up appropriate anime names for every character in his pitch without skipping a beat.
I like to think that I have especially creative friends, but I think the structure of the game and the words on the cards did a lot to pull our creativity to the surface. I felt like we could take any of the winning pitches from a Channel A game and turn them into role-playing campaigns or webcomics.
Anyway I highly recommend this game. Whenever the final version comes out I'm going to buy a couple sets to bring to anime conventions with me.
Zelda backtracking as an educational game design principle
Zelda games are always showing you cool stuff just out of your reach. Like, a treasure chest up on the side of a cliff, or blocked by some weird statue, so you can't get to it. If you've played any of these games, you recognize it as a backtrack situation. "Oh, I can't get there yet, but probably later in the game there's an item I can use to get past that obstacle; I'll come back later."
Usually, making the player backtrack would be bad game design: it's boring and wastes time. You might think, if the player needs a hookshot to get that chest, why not put the chest after the hookshot? It's functionally equivalent but with no backtracking involved.
But in Zelda, backtracking is part of a really clever game design. I'd even say it's essential to the fun.
Because showing the player something that they can't get until later motivates them to keep playing. The player thinks "Oh man I can't get that yet... but if I had a hookshot, I could! GOTTA FIND THAT HOOKSHOT!".
Also, it rewards the player for remembering where they saw stuff, for exploring thoroughly and backtracking instead of just always pressing on to the next required plot point. Which reinforces the theme that Zelda games are about exploration.
And when you finally get the hookshot (or whatever item) it's much more exciting because you already know several places to use it. You've been itching to get your hands on it, so when you finally get to play with it you feel like a million bucks.
Then you backtrack through earlier areas collecting goodies with your cool new tool, and the old enemies that used to give you so much trouble are now a breeze, which makes you feel like a badass. Games based on a power progression have to keep upping the challenges, which sometimes makes the player feel like they're barely keeping pace, like running on a treadmill. Giving them a reason to backtrack lets them step off the treadmill and just enjoy all the power they've earned.
So if Zelda-style backtracking is so great for motivating players to keep playing, is there a way to apply that to the Studio Xia Chinese game?
Maybe if we show the player a situation that they can't solve yet using the Chinese that they know (for some meaning of "situation" and "solve"), they'll be motivated to keep playing in order to learn the Chinese they need? And then backtrack and apply their new knowledge to solve that situation?
The important point here is that the new grammar pattern / vocab word is the Hookshot, i.e. it's not the obstacle, it's the way of overcoming the obstacle. Most educational games are crappy because the educational material is mapped onto the gameplay role of "monster" -- defeat this endless series of identical Octorocks with math problems on them, or whatever. You just want them to stop coming. We need to make the educational material feel like tools instead, like power-ups, so the player's excited to get a new one.
But if you need 1,000 words for even basic conversational fluency... well, how do you design a game with 1,000 distinct, interesting power-ups? That I haven't figured out yet.
What Mega Man can teach us about fairness
I LOVE Mega Man games, especially 2 and 3. Mega Man X is pretty great too.
I wasted way too much time recently reading this forum thread about level design, which goes through every Mega Man game in great depth analyzing what makes each level fun or not fun. Since the Mega Man games are so similar in basic mechanics, the level designs (and weapon selections) make all the difference. You can learn a lot about very subtle points of game design from analyzing the level designs.
Key among these is the difference between a difficult-but-fair challenge and a "cheap shot". A cheap shot is when the game hits you with something you had no way to see coming. Either it's not dodgeable, or it's dodgeable only if you died to it once already and you know it's coming up.
The latter type of cheap shot is no fun because it makes the game into an exercise in memorization. When something's not dodgeable without prior knowledge, it feels like the game is cheating.
I want to examine that feeling, because it gets at a sort of implicit "social contract" between the player and the game designer. The feeling that the game cheated means that we as players feel a rule has been violated, even though that rule is not written down anywhere. What would that rule be? Obviously there's an implicit assumption when we buy a game that the game is completable, otherwise it's broken. But more than completable, an action game such as Mega Man should be completable without damage, at least theoretically. Every danger should be dodgeable with enough skill. A hypothetical infinitely-skilled player should be able to complete the game on the first try without getting hit.
We want that to be the social contract, because somewhere in our minds we want to feel like we could, if we practiced enough, become that perfect player.
The Mega Man games uphold this contract reliably enough that the exceptions really stand out. (E.g. I think the last boss of Mega Man 7 is technically impossible to beat without using an E-tank.)
When that contract is being upheld, you get hit and go "Oh, that was my fault, I should be ready for next time I see one of those". It makes you want to get better at the game so you can take less damage. When you get hit with a cheap shot, it breaks the spell a little. You go "Hey, no fair! How was I supposed to dodge that? Why am I even playing this game if it's just going to cheat?" It makes you care less about playing.
A lot of the fun in games comes from improving your skill (Raph Koster's theory is that fun is intimately tied to learning). So it's important to always hold out the hope of improvement to the players. Show them a path to improve. Give them a situation that says "this looks hard now, but if you were a little bit better you could be totally awesome at it".
For that, there must be the promise that the game is playing fair, and improvement is always possible. Challenges should never be designed just for the sake of making the game harder! (You listening, ROM hackers?) They should be designed to give the player the thrill of victory when they are at last overcome.
The application to educational game design should be obvious.
Rocket Science Games - a tale of corporate hubris and epic failure
When browsing the web today I found a retrospective by serial entrepreneur Steve Blank about a failed startup company he started 20 years ago, and the lessons he learned from its failure.
The company was called Rocket Science Games.
Wait a minute... I think I've heard of them. Back in 1993-94 I saw some magazine article about how they were going to revolutionize gaming by fusing Hollywood with Silicon Valley and bringing cinematic storytelling to games, or some buzzword-laden hype like that.
What this meant in practice is that they released a few desultory CD-ROM rail-shooters and Myst clones packed with horrible grainy video clips and lousy gameplay, then disappeared without a trace.
Here's a Wired article about them from the time.
It's fascinating to read the inside story directly from the CEO responsible for this fiasco. He admits his hubris led to their destruction. Rocket Science thought they were hot shit because they built cutting-edge video compression tools to stream FMV off of a CD-ROM faster. They spent millions of dollars building a cool office in San Francisco and hiring all these hotshot Hollywood scriptwriters and cinematographers. But nobody was in charge of game design. It's like they didn't even know game design was a thing. The CEO never even asked to see the gameplay of the games they were making!
He obviously didn't know the first thing about video games, and from his retrospective it seems like he still doesn't. He can barely conceal his contempt for gaming and gamers (neither can the author of that Wired article). He talks about gameplay like it's just some button-mashing to be grudgingly included in between their beautiful video clips. Everybody involved had this attitude that gaming was a terrible adolescent boy pastime about mindless violence and they were going to come in and elevate it with their highbrow focus on Story.
It certainly provides some insight into why the CD-ROM game craze of the mid-90s happened, and why most of the games so quickly ended up in the bargain bin; they were funded by people riding a hype bubble who didn't particularly want to be making video games at all and lacked the curiosity to try to understand what they were making.
If your prime directive is "must use all these video clips" and nobody's in charge of game design then you're going to turn out rail shooters and Myst clones by default (two of the shallowest, most boring, most mindless game genres).
A company that's 100% focused on the technology gimmick they're trying to push and 0% focused on what their potential customers actually want from a product will, unsurprisingly, make things that nobody wants.
Podcast #3 - You Gained a Level!
In this episode we talk about Phantasy Star 2 and other super-grindy JRPGs; the evolution and applications of "levelling up" as a game mechanic; the disconnect between story and gameplay; and what relevance these things might have to designing an educational game.
0:43 - Old school video games on the Wii
2:30 - More intutive? Or I'm just more used to them?
3:45 - Despite my nostalgia, old school JRPGs are super grindy, segregate story from gameplay
5:30 - Spoilers for a 24-year-old game
6:00 - The feeling of progression
9:00 - Regular death vs. plot-relevant death
10:30 - Why subject yourself to random encounters?
11:00 - The browser-based JRPG engine I'm working on
13:55 - I'm not just randomly wandering around, I'm EXPLORING the BIOSYSTEMS LAB while leveling up my chosen team!
16:00 - Wizard 101, and why are MMORPGs so repetitive
18:40 - The Guild drama IS the story!
20:30 - Can't we just watch this story as a movie?
21:15 - Why stories, and games, have to END
23:00 - Learn Chinese: the JRPG
24:40 - Keeping players engaged through five years of practicing a langauge
25:00 - Design constraints of edu-tainment. Subgoals.
26:40 - Balancing the game part with the learning part
28:00 - Limitations of what can be learned in a game format
29:00 - There are only so many fruits you need to know in Chinese!
31:00 - The effort/payoff ratio of designing custom content
33:30 - Begging your friends for nails in Farmville
34:30 - Leveling Up is such a powerful game mechanic
36:15 - Leveling Up is a meaningless overused gamification strategy
37:30 - But does it let you kill stronger monsters?
38:30 - Silicon Valley ran that idea into the ground
39:30 - Why leveling up in Bejewelled is pointless
40:15 - What does leveling up simulate?
41:45 - External rewards
Podcast #4 - Board Game Ending Conditions
Podcast 4 continues our game design theme from last time. Inspired by Sushu's pulse-pounding stealth victory in a recent game of Power Grid, we talk about why we like Power Grid, the genius of its winning condition, and the difficulty of designing a good win condition for a game with > 2 players.
0:50 - What's Power Grid?
2:20 - The importance of game ending conditions
3:15 - The Munchkin ending problem
5:50 - Settlers of Cataan vs Monopoly
7:20 - The Monopoly ending problem
9:30 - The Settlers of Cataan ending problem
12:30 - The fixed-number-of-turns ending (e.g. Small World)
13:10 - Analysis paralysis and decidability
15:15 - The Power Grid ending condition
19:05 - The thought process around ending the game
20:00 - "Mulitplayer solitaire" and how well-designed games avoid it
23:10 - Power Grid's rubber band balancing mechanic and the interesting ways to exploit it
27:00 - Miscalculations, drama, and heart-pounding endings
28:55 - Bidding and bluffing
30:30 - Short-term vs. long-term gain and unpredictable ending conditions
32:45 - Playing with mixed-skill players; inflicting German board games on your friends
35:30 - The very very weird place of Monopoly in our culture
38:07 - The Risk ending problem; comparison to Small World
40:00 - How much do you want to WIN?
42:50 - Games as socialization; playing to win vs. playing to hang out
44:45 - What people on Board Game Geek hate
45:45 - Only fun when you're trying to win?
46:10 - "It's only a game, why are you taking it so seriously?"
47:20 - Games that we care about winning and those we don't
Podcast 7 - Prime Time Adventures
And here's podcast #7, where we talk about why we enjoy Prime Time Adventures so much. At this point I've played four full campaigns and numerous one-shots, so I think I've played more sessions of PTA than any other role-playing game.
1:10 Not your mega long 6-hour D&D sessions!
2:15 the rules happen on the level of storytelling
4:15 Conflict scale
5:35 What the cards tell you
6:40 The importance of choosing the right conflict
7:10 Mecha pilot issues
9:40 Players' issues guide the Producer
10:45 Unsatisfactory movies
13:00 What makes stories powerful is characters have to make tough decisions
14:45 Resolve conflicts and move the story forward
15:20 How the rules of PTA push players into hard decisions
17:00 The conflict is not whether I can fly well enough
17:35 Gruchakla the wookie jedi confronts his clone
19:40 OHHHH SHIIIIIIT
21:15 Communist revolutionaries raid my family's estate
22:20 Set up a campaign in half an hour
23:20 Tapping into language of TV shows (genre, camera stuff)
24:15 FRESNO HEAT!
24:45 Series pitches
25:30 Making up a cast
27:40 Instant NPCS
27:55 No random character death
29:50 Ways that PTA can go horribly wrong
30:30 Pre-conflict negotiation
32:20 Spotlight episodes and screen presence
34:30 You accidentally blow up a planet!
37:10 The budget / fan mail economy
39:05 The producer doesn't control the story!
40:45 I fail to pick up on obvious kung-fu plot hooks
41:20 Lessons from PTA about what makes a good story
43:00 Don't have a conflict if one of the outcomes will ruin your story!
45:00 Finding the scenes with tension
Free to play games -- the right way and the wrong way
I've had a lot of time on the Caltrain since taking a job at this
genetics lab up in South San Francisco. It's not all bad: I have time
to read more books or to hack on game programming projects
undisturbed. I also decided to try using my phone to play games. I
heard this one called Candy Crush was pretty good, so I played
it. It's alright, but it feels like more restrictive version of a game
I played 20 years ago. (Also, for a game about candy, the candy pieces
sure look unappealing. They're all like those hard candies that spawn at the
bottom of old ladies' purses.)
It claims to be free, with real money needed only to purchase
optional benefits: extra turns or bonus items. But there are some levels that seem
designed to be unbeatable without those bonuses. E.g. level 34, the
level that made me quit Candy Crush, gives you an unreasonably stingy
number of moves to complete the objective. There's no real strategy
for doing it in fewer moves: You either get out your wallet and buy enough turns to beat it or
you keep trying until you luck into a massive combo chain.
They wouldn't design a level like this unless it was intended to
frustrate you into opening your wallet. The monetization strategy is negatively influencing the
Look, I understand Candy Crush developers gotta feed their families. I
don't mind paying for a game one bit. But if I'm going to pay real
money, I like to know what I'm getting and how much it will cost.
If they told me up-front "Candy
Crush is $10" or better yet "The first X levels are a free demo, pay
$10 to unlock the full game" then I might buy it, I might not, but I
wouldn't feel like they were trying to rip me off. But the cost of
completing Candy Crush is carefully obfuscated. You don't know
exactly how many turns you'll have to buy to clear one of the unfair levels, or how
many unfair levels you have to pay your way past before you get back
to fun levels.
It seems designed to exploit the sunk-cost fallacy, where people think
"I've already got this far, I just need to pay a little more or
everything I've paid so far to beat this level will be wasted."
There are also artifical roadblocks where you must wait some arbitrary
amount of real time before attempting the next level. You can buy your
way past the roadblock, or you can "ask your friends for help" which
means giving Candy Crush permission to spam your social network.
It doesn't have to be this way. You can make a game supported by
in-app purchases without compromising the game design, hiding the true
cost, or exploiting people's psychological flaws.
On my thanksgiving trip to Chicago, my brother-in-law introduced me to
a game called League of Legends, which is kind of like Warcraft 3 if
each player controlled just one hero and the base ran
automatically. (Apparently this is a whole genre of games now? I guess
it's a logical step -- Warcraft 3 was cool but felt like it was asking me to juggle
and tapdance at the same time).
Anyway, the game is free to download. Each player controls a single
champion chosen from an absurdly large pool. Ten of those champions
are free to play; the free selection rotates weekly. You only need to
pay real money if you want to permanently unlock a champion of your
choice. Actually it's even more generous than that: after a few games
with the free roster you earn enough in-game points to unlock a couple
of champions. If you're happy just playing one champion, you can play
them forever without paying a cent. The company makes their money from
people who want more variety, and also by selling alternate outfits
for champions. (Let's face it, playing dress-up with
your toon is a major motivation; it's like half of the reason
people stick to the grind in MMORPGs.)
An odd little fact is that not all champions cost the same
amount. This immediately raised my suspicion, because if richer
players can afford better champions, then the game wouldn't be
fair. (That would be monetization compromising game design again; the
perception that you can buy your way to victory was something that
collectible card games and minis games have always struggled with.)
But so far my internet searching hasn't shown me a lot of people
screaming about unfairness or calling the costlier champions
overpowered. If there was a pattern of imbalance there I'm sure the playerbase
would be loud about it. But if all the champions are balanced, why do
some cost more? I've heard some say that designers make champions that
are easier to learn cheaper in order to steer new players in the right
direction. Another factor seems to be age - newly released champions
are expensive, and get discounted as they age. It could simply be market segmentation: I'm sure
somebody's willing to pay a premium for a less common character, just
to feel cooler than the free users.
Lots of people have pointed out the danger of free-to-play games
exploiting players with psychological tricks and UI "dark
patterns". Zynga seems especially sketchy, with their "whale fishing"
and the way Farmville is designed to create social obligations to keep
But it's not
like there's nothing to criticize with the pay-up-front model
either. DRM, for instance. Companies that focus more on marketing
a game than on making it good. Etc. You can make a good game with
either model. You can rip people off with either model.
When I was a kid, buying a game meant buying a box from a shelf at Toys-R-Us (or more
likely, renting it for a weekend, sans instructions, from the video
store) which seems hopelessly outdated now. There's not just one business model replacing it, but a
bewildering variety of financial experiments. Greater variety of
business models means greater variety of genres that can be
commercially viable. Right now is an exciting time for video games!
Hey so I think I'm gonna go to this: Ludum Dare 28 meetup. Make a game from scratch in a weekend! What could possibly go wrong? It's the weekend after this one.
Moon Serpent teaser
Here's a teaser of something me and Googleshng have been working on: Moon Serpent, a browser-based, retro-styled JRPG in the spirit of Dragon Quest or Phantasy Star. Googleshng is doing the graphics and game design, sticking faithfully to the aesthetics of the year 1987, while I'm doing the programming. I'm writing the game engine as generically as possible, to be a reusable asset for future RPG projects part of the source code is available on my GitHub page. We started working on this back in April and hope to release it next month (January 2014).
Podcast 12 - Card Games
In this one we talk about card games, cooperative games, and common problems and solutions in game design. Mostly we talk about the games "Hanabi" and "Citadels".
3:45 Cooperative games, Arkham Horror, and the "Ask Mike" problem
5:30 Hanabi's clever use of information restrictions
6:45 you have to actually participate in solving the puzzle
7:15 Multiplayer solitaire. Pandemic
9:05 An AI made of cardboard, dice, and flowcharts
11:00 Castle Panic
12:20 Hanabi makes your brain hurt
13:10 Games that are more like work than fun
16:25 I'm not thinking about history when i play King of Siam
17:20 A game can be really well designed and balanced but still not 'fun'
19:20 Citadels.Making up stories based on card artwork.
24:15 Intrigue and backstabbing!
26:20 The Paper Rock Scissors problem
28:40 The "do you want to play or do you want to win?" problem
31:55 The carefully-chosen order of the roles
34:00 Puerto Rico, Race for the Galaxy
38:00 Combo decking in M:TG
40:45 What makes card games fun for the whole group?
42:25 Hidden information is kind of the point