Monday, June 22, 2015

My experiences as a Kickstarter backer are disappointing

I was telling my wife about one of the Kickstarters I had backed, what seems to be a long time ago, without receiving "the goods", and realized that that's been my experience for many of those I've backed. So I decided to write a brief blog post about my experiences. I'll start with the good ones and work my way downward.

(Note that I have not backed a game; in my very limited experience, pre-ordering games (which is what Kickstarter amounts to) has resulted in me paying more than people who waited. And I'm not the sort of person to get excited by the hype and smoke and mirrors that surrounds so many Kickstarter game offerings. I want to find out what the game is really about before I buy it, and among other things I do not trust pre-reviews, a field open to vast possibilities of "shenanigans.")

In most cases by the time I backed the project it had already exceeded its minimum target.

The most immediate return, and one of only two that have actually delivered so far, was run by Evil Hat Productions, which is one of the stars of the Kickstarter universe as I understand it. It was for a new edition of the book Designers and Dragons, and three new companion books. Since I only "backed" electronic copies which were already more or less done the delivery was very quick.

I supported an offer to deliver custom laser etched dice. This one went off without a hitch and I received my dice some time ago. (They're not very practical as dice because many are hard to read, but the college kids think they're cool and prefer to use them when possible.)

The next one is much more recent than the others, an offering of fantasy coins. The producers actually had to try three times before they succeeded in funding, and there hasn't been enough time for them to deliver.

I think the first Kickstarter I supported was for "Doublesix Dice", 12 sided dice numbered 1 to 6 twice. This project has run into many production problems (Chinese manufacturer) but the man in charge has spent a great deal of time and is very open about what's happening, providing videos of the production candidates, and I expect that sooner or later the dice will be delivered.

Another project I supported is for "GripMats".  These are a great idea, but it turned out that only one printer in the United States could handle the job and they tended to ignore the project in favor of other things. At one point the project manager said he had quit his job in order to spend full time nursing this along, and later a foreign printer was found. But there's been no delivery and I have no idea when or if there ever will be. The best we have seen is photographs.

I supported another custom etched dice project that has hit hard times. The project manager used the money to buy laser etching equipment and reported on his experiences setting up, but then he went silent. Recently he has described in great detail a physical malady that prevents him from doing any work, and he's waiting to get an appointment with a top level specialist. This points up, of course, the problem that so many Kickstarters depend on a single individual. We'll hope he recovers sometime and can deliver. (There is no money to refund because he spent it on the equipment.)

At best you could call this a chequered experience. "It is what it is." But I notice that I haven't backed any new projects in quite a while.

$10 off my "book length" "Learning Game Design" online audiovisual course ($49)

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Video (screencast): The Many Meanings of “Theme”

Text of the slides is below.  Keep in mind, there's more to the presentation than this text!

Dr. Lewis Pulsipher

Rendered useless . . .
I don’t use the word “theme” any more, because there are so many different meanings
If you cannot know how your reader/listener understands a word, you can’t use it (if you want to be clear)
These meanings are not even close to the same things.  Which is why I don’t use the word any more, it’s confusing rather than meaningful
This happens periodically with certain words as the language changes
For example, “bi-annual” is useless
So is “literal”

. . . by too many different meanings
I’m going to these meanings for “theme” and suggest alternatives
Here’s a list of different meanings:
“Theme” as model
“Theme” as a guide to action or “context”
“Theme” as an atmosphere/canvas/decoration
“Theme” as a gloss – or even less
If I’m talking about theme as model, and you’re talking about theme as atmosphere/decoration, we’ll never understand each other

Theme as model
The game is an attempt to model a situation
There’s a strong connection, in what the players do and what happens, between the game and some reality (even if it’s a fictional reality)
I call this “correspondence” (or “analogousness,” but that’s an ugly word, from analogy)
Keep in mind, models always simplify the reality
Most historical wargames fit this meaning of “theme” – how could they not?
Though some conquest games, like Risk, are pretty far removed from any history and any reality – is Risk even a poor model?

Might not be a GOOD model . . .
Keep in mind, the model may not be a good one
For example, World of Tanks, an otherwise fine game, has lots of “nuts and bolts” for war buffs, but the actual play has very little to do with actual warfare
It’s a model, but a poor one
The same can be said about most shooters (WoT is really an arcade third person team shooter)
World of Warships, same thing

Mechanics not lending themselves to models
Some common game mechanics, having next to nothing to do with real life, do not lend themselves to theme as model or even theme as context
For example, worker placement: something almost never found in real life
It may exist, but I’ve not seen a worker placement game that was anything but abstract
Swapping roles from turn to turn is another
Drafting is also rare in real life (outside of American pro sports player drafts)

Video games
Respawning in video games is anti-model, for sure!
It’s far too easy to hit something with a long-range weapon, too
In RTS, the base-building style doesn’t match any real or fictional reality I know
And so forth: in some ways, taken altogether video games are worse models than tabletop

Theme as guide to action or “context,” via a story
The “theme” is a story that provides a context to help players play the game
This requires some resemblance between game and reality, but does not require it to be a model
(Where one ends and the other begins is hard to say)
At some point, this merges into theme as atmosphere/decoration

Theme as atmosphere/canvas/decoration
The “theme” provides an atmosphere, a feeling, for what is largely an abstract game
What the player does has virtually nothing to do with the supposed situation/story
What happens in the game has little to do with the proposed situation/story
“Decoration” might be the clearest word to use, as much of this comes from appearance without substance
If you can take an existing game and change the so-called “theme”, you have this version of theme, or even less

Theme as a gloss – or even less than that
Gloss – something tacked onto a game after it has been designed and tested
While this may be an attempt to provide context, for the most part it’s a marketing ploy
Think about how people buy games in stores
They pick it up and look at the back cover
The back cover tells them a story that may have nothing to do with the game
In fact, the back cover rarely discusses gameplay

With all these meanings . . .
If you use the word “theme” without one of the other words I’ve proposed, you likely confuse the reader/listener
When people talk about games, much of the confusion comes from semantics
Let’s try not to contribute to the confusion
Just Say No to using the word “theme”

No doubt there are other meanings out there, but these seem to be the principle ones

Saturday, June 06, 2015

The Stages of Playtesting: the Nature of the Testers, or the State of the Game?

Typically, the stages of game play testing are divided into Alpha and Beta and sometimes other names. But when people use these terms, they often mean quite different things. I’m going to discuss some of the different views of the stages of playtesting, and the “new” stages that can come even after release of a game.

It doesn’t really matter what we call the stages, what matters is what’s happening, and that’s what we’ll focus on.

I have always thought of playtesting in terms of who is doing the playtesting and what their relationship is to the creation of the game. But some people focus on the state of the game rather than who is doing the testing. That’s where much of the confusion arises.

In my book Game Design (McFarland, 2012), I briefly discussed the stages of playtesting:

There are three stages to playtesting: solo playtesting (also called "alpha"), local playtesting ("beta"), and "blind" or “external” playtesting (often spoken of as part of the "beta" stage).   While there are various ways to name these stages, the stages certainly exist, although sometimes video game companies leave out the “external” testing stage.

Of course, in single-player video games all testing will be solo for a single player game. I might have said instead of “solo playtesting,” “playtesting by the game developer(s).”  The difference between Alpha and Beta is that the Beta testers are not among the developers of the game, so they have a completely different point of view. Developers often have worked with the game so long and so closely that they cannot see it objectively, and they have learned over time to cope with problems or peculiarities in the game that an ordinary player would regard as seriously detrimental.

I emphasized who is doing the testing, because historically video game studios often failed to playtest beyond the game developers themselves, that is, never got to the Beta stage.  And their games suffered severely for it.  This failure is much, much less common today.

Since I wrote the book I’ve added the third Greek letter, “Gamma,” to represent testing after a game is released. This is especially common in video games where a free-to-play game is often released in an unfinished but functional state so that the developers can discover whether there’s “something in it”. If there isn’t, they stop development and they’ve saved themselves a lot of time and effort (and that equals money). If there is something in it (if enough people enjoy it), they can continue to develop the game and continue to benefit from user feedback, which is after all what playtesting is, user feedback.

In contrast to judging playtesting stages by who is testing, Alan Paull, designer of many published games and lately of games for his co-owned company Surprised Stare, thinks of testing in terms of the state of the game. In the Alpha stage the game is not stable (is changed frequently), whereas in the Beta stage the game is fairly stable.

When judging from the state of the game, at some point the game is regarded as entirely stable, that is, ready to publish. In this context I’m reminded of the Microsoft term “release candidate,” where software is tested, and if no additional problems are found it is released, even though there are still lots of known coding problems in the software.  (No large computer application is ever released without lots of bugs, both known and unknown.)  In tabletop game terms the nearest equivalent would be a game distributed for testing by a publisher who has committed to publishing the game.

“Blind testing” is quite different in the video game world than in tabletop, because video games are intended to work without requiring the player to read a rules manual, whereas blind testing in tabletop requires the tester to read the rules and learn the game from the rules. It’s really hard to find people who will follow through with a blind tabletop playtest, unless the game is a “release candidate.”  In tabletop the presumption is that at the blind testing stage you have a “release candidate.”  The other assumption is that the playtesters have had nothing to do with the development of the game.

Recently some terms have been adopted in the video game world that further differentiate (and also confuse) the matter. Alpha and Beta stages can now be “open” or “closed.”  Closed means that only certain select/privileged/lucky people are able to participate. For example, World of Warships has gone through an Alpha stage, a closed Beta, and soon an open Beta. In all of those stages virtually all players have had nothing to do with development of the game, so these terms relate to the state of the game - what I would three years ago have called Beta.

On Steam (video game distribution for PCs) we have “Early Access” games where players are already paying for the game even though it is still in playtesting. Playtesters paying to play? That’s a good trick if you can manage it.  (World of Warships has achieved it, by selling “Premium” ships that give people access to play in the otherwise-closed Beta.)  "Early Access" testing is possible primarily because there is no cost in making another (playtest) copy of a software game.

Furthermore, as publishing and re-publishing becomes easier, “playtesting” becomes part of publication.  Video game patches fix programming bugs, but they can also fix gameplay problems.  In effect, they’re changes to the game resulting from the “Gamma” testing, testing after publication.  Even for some tabletop games this kind of thing can be done.  “Living rules” (rules posted online that can be revised) are the result of testing-after-release of a tabletop game.  Or imagine you’ve published a Print-on-Demand (POD) game, e.g. through DriveThruCards or  If a problem arises, you can change one or more components so that every subsequent buyer benefits from the testing-after-release.  Gamma testing is a reality for many kinds of games.

In any case, the accompanying diagram is an attempt to graphically show what’s happening.  As time passes, the game is improved (shown by black line), but improvements come more slowly as the game approaches completion (also shown by the blue rate of improvement line).  As the game improves, the testing usually reaches a wider audience (shown by red line).  Late in the testing process this audience may contract (tabletop games blind testing), or may expand (video game “release candidate” testing), shown by the two branches of the red line.

As for the names of playtesting stages, I think Gamma (post-release) needs to be recognized, though some might want to use Gamma to designate "release candidate" testing, and Delta for post-release testing.  I don’t think we’ll have any agreement about Alpha and Beta, as some people continue to emphasize who is testing, and some emphasize the state of the game.

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I will soon start a Patreon campaign for support for my Game Design channel on YouTube, as well.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Game Patents: A Waste of your Money

Below is the text of the slides.  There's more to the presentation, of course, than the slide text.

Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
“Game Design” channel on YouTube

I am not a lawyer
But I’ve listened to lawyers discuss game IP quite a few times
And I’ve read a lot
While this isn’t legal advice (and wouldn’t be even if I was a lawyer), I think it’s a good brief summary
If you want legal advice, talk to a lawyer (who’s experienced with game IP!)

A Patent:
Protects a specific expression of an idea
Usually a product
But there are also “design patents” and “method patents” these days, to help the PTO (Patent and Trademark Office) make more money, I think
Must be novel and non-obvious
Limited duration (20 years (or less) in USA, down from 26)
Apply only in one country!
Copyright is respected in most countries through Berne Convention
Patent and trademark apply (and must be applied for) country by country

“One important concept that is lost on a lot of lay people is that when you sue to enforce a patent (and I am an IP trial lawyer who defends big companies daily), you are allowed to argue that a patent is obvious by combining two or more other things. . . sort of like combining chocolate with peanut butter.” - Steve Facie
The Patent and Trademark Office has allowed many such obvious patents, but the courts are much more strict
Such as the patent on providing an 800 number for people to call when they’re uncertain about the rules for a game
But even Hasbro didn’t spend the money to challenge it in court

Patent Office is a Big Mess
US Patent and Trademark Office is thoroughly screwed up because it self-funds
The more patents it issues, the more $$$ it makes
Not surprisingly, the PTO “regularly and routinely issues patents [that are] plainly invalid and are found to be such when enforcement is sought.” (Steve Facie, IP lawyer who participates in patent trials)
This is where “patent trolls” come from: buying up ridiculous patents that have nonetheless been issued by the PTO, the trolls try to scare companies into paying royalties on this trash

Patent Costs
Expensive to file ($3-10K according to lawyers)
Plus $565, $1425, $2365 for maintenance fees paid at 3 1/2, 7 1/2, and 11 1/2 years after your patent is granted. These fees maintain your legal protection
Worse, far more expensive than this to defend in court
And about 2/3 of patents are invalidated when they get to court
Successful games are very rarely patented
Games you never heard of, and never will, make up virtually all of the patents
Which anyone can look up online

Cost versus your Revenue
Why spend more money than you’re likely to make on the game?
Very few games (tabletop or video) are patented
The most well-known patent is on Magic: the Gathering, not just on “tapping”
“look and feel” come into it
It has now expired
You can see the latest patents online – virtually all are utterly foolish, such as a new way of betting on BlackJack!
Not novel
And Useless!

And it’s not likely to “Stick”
. . . If challenged in court
“. . . roughly TWO THIRDS of all patents asserted in litigation are invalidated (i.e., forever killed) either at trial or on appeal. In other words, the Patent and Trademark Office regularly and routinely issues patents [that are] plainly invalid and are found to be such when enforcement is sought.” IP Lawyer Steve Facie

Patent versus Copyright
Copyright protects the look and artistic presentation, including the actual wording, of a work
Copyright violation is to some extent a criminal matter, patents are purely a civil matter (government does not enforce, no law is broken)
Copyright is supported in most countries via the Berne convention; patents must be filed in every country where you want protection

I read much more often of copyright lawsuits than of patent suits
Wizards of the Coast takes on Cryptozoic Entertainment in CCG online lawsuit
Keep in mind, this is based on copyright, the patent has expired
Crytozoic issued a CCG that is just too much like MtG
Triple Town video game suit also based on copyright, not patent

Copyright (and trademark) are your friends. Find a game designer who has obtained a patent, and almost always, you’ll find one of those “suckers born every minute.”

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"Introduction to (Tabletop) Role-playing Game Design"
More than four hours long, but it IS an introduction.
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 I've just opened a brief (hour?) online course, "Prospering at Game Conventions and Conferences"
This is officially $5, but FREE to you with this coupon:

Friday, May 15, 2015

Why I Only Play 1e D&D, not other RPGs

I first saw Dungeons & Dragons in 1974. At the time my favorite game was Diplomacy, a seven player cutthroat diceless wargame. I said to myself at the time, “I hate dice games.” But of course it turned out that D&D was not a dice game, rather it was a microcosm of life where you do what you can to reduce the number of times when you have to rely on the dice to save your butt. Smart people do the same thing in life, trying to reduce the number of times when they have to get lucky.

So in 1975 I started playing the game. I settled on Advanced Dungeons & Dragons as my game of choice and that has been true until this year. I have never seen a need to switch to a newer edition because the newer editions had a different zeitgeist that I did not approve of. I did play and even referee third edition and I played fourth edition.

I’ve read lots of RPG rules and seen various games being played, but I never saw a need to change from first edition because I could modify it to suit whatever I needed. I am not a lover of games, I am a lover of particular games, and I tend to stick to those particular games. I have never been susceptible to the “cult of the new.” Why bother to learn new rules and new ways of doing things when I’m fully satisfied with what I’ve got? 1e D&D is a simple game despite the great mass of standard rules when compared with games like Rolemaster, but it provides enough detail to treat the game as a wargame rather than as merely a story (FATE is largely story, for example). Typically I set up situations to challenge the players rather than guide them along a particular story; I want the players to write their own story within the context that I provided.

I usually create my own settings, but the one commercial setting I was most interested in is Spelljammer, despite its inconsistencies.  I’ve partly devised an alternative set of rules for a Spelljammer-like game, and I have a couple of boardgames in mind related to the same kind of setting.

Because I’ve been satisfied with D&D, I have only once attempted to design a separate RPG. And that RPG is a very limited set of rules to be used in a boardgame. The idea was to substitute programmed instruction for a referee, but I’ve never got far enough to try doing that because I have great doubts that it can be done reasonably.

On the other hand I’ve written a great many supplements to D&D - at one time I was going to write a supplement for Games Workshop that fell through when they lost their distribution rights for D&D in the United Kingdom - among them a 23,000 word set of D&D Army rules that scaled from small groups (a few hundred) two armies of many tens of thousands. I use that a lot in my own campaign, and someday I’ll include it in a book with reprints of some of my many articles from Dungeon and White Dwarf magazines among others. There are unpublished character classes to include as well. So I wrote a lot of RPG stuff but as variants of D&D rather than separate games.

I have been extremely impressed with the professionalism and quality of rules writing and rules creation for the fifth edition of D&D. The ridiculously easy healing rules (a manifestation of 21st century reward-based gaming instead of 20th century consequence-based gaming) ruin the game as written, but it’s easy enough to remove the revivify spell and some of the easy healing rules. But I have to say I have not played fifth edition yet, I’m still working my way through the Monster Manual having read the other two. I tend to feel I ought to spend my time on my own board and card game designs rather than on playing D&D, but that can change.

Some of the excellent additions to the game are advantage and disadvantage, and attunement of magic items. The first is a great simplifier, and the second helps solve the problem of characters with huge bags of magic items. Even little things like the change so that no one has to keep track over long periods of how many charges there are in a magic item are an indication of the thought put into the game. Of course, the writers had 40 years of role-playing game experience to draw on.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Triptych IV

Three different topics in one blog post.

First, a comment about Reading Versus Listening and Watching.  I am not writing much in the blog, these days, as I tend to think in terms of screencasts (videos) because that’s where the education market has gone.  The proportion of people willing to read (as opposed to listen) decreases over time.  Before I retired from college teaching I saw that students often didn’t even get a copy of the textbook, let alone read it.

A blog such as this one naturally attracts the readers, rather than the listeners. So I’ll try to write more often.  I am also working on turning my online courses into books, for those who prefer to read.

“Growing” the Hobby

If you want to "grow" any game-related hobby, you make the games easier to play (require less thought/action by the participant) and make them more rewarding.

To do the first, you either:
tell the player what to do (as in many of the original Zynga Facebook games) or
you make things happen for the player (the player is a passive observer), or
you make every decision lead to success (that is, no "bad" decisions)

Further (and this is the second), make sure that there's feedback (at the very least) if not functional reward (such as loot) at every juncture/encounter.

Using these methods, people who don't want to make an effort (an attitude that seems to be more and more common in the days of the "Easy Button" - "I can't be bothered"), and people who want the game to be more like a movie, rewarding them rather than requiring them to earn something, will more likely be attracted.

This is what has happened in MMOs and F2P video games.  We're seeing some of it in tabletop games, though not as strongly as in video games.

I'm not going to say this broad appeal is bad.  But is it what you want as a designer, is that how you want to design "games"?  Are hobby games becoming famiily and party games?

 How being a game designer changes your perception

Christian Williams was describing Kickstarter in a blog post on LinkedIn recently.  Then he talked about the opening video for a KS project.  He showed three, including this one,

Christian said "Wow. Just wow. I watched this video and I wanted to play this game NOW!? "

What did I see, as a game designer?  I saw a fairly abstract game with some Euro influence and a little maneuver, more or less a game about collecting things.  I saw a video that emphasized story, but games aren't stories, they're games.  It hinted at the mechanics used, but emphasized the imagined story.

I saw how the game was constructed, not the story.  I only care about the story insofar as it influences the gameplay, the design, and I couldn't learn enough about the design to know, nor to be excited about the design.

I have no interest in playing it.  (Though I have to admit, I am not a game lover, I'm a lover of certain games and certain kinds of games, which is quite another thing.)

(Keep in mind, Kickstarters aren't about the game, they're about the product.  They're about the dream.  You don't really know what the game is like or how it will play, it may not even have been completed.)

Here's how a video game developer described the change in how the developer perceived games:

When you consider becoming a developer, you are going to develop a certain type of hypothetical 'developers glasses'. This means you'll be able to recognize the structure of games and how they are constructed. This sounds great at first, but it will soon transform you into an extremely critical judge, and these glasses will make it harder to swap back to your 'consumer glasses'. I won't say you will not enjoy games anymore, but pleasing yourself with what once was your hobby gets harder.  -Koen Deetman

Books are like games?

Books are like games in many ways.  Almost no game has original mechanics, original settings, themes, etc.  But a game can be new as a whole because of the way things are put together.  Nor could someone go out on the Web, find descriptions of some mechanics, and throw them together to be as good as a properly-designed game.

Books - fiction or non-fiction - rarely contain a lot that is original, but what is selected for inclusion, how it's arranged, how it's presented, makes a big difference.  For example, there are a couple dozen books on game design, but none that resemble my book.

Non-fiction books combine a lot of information that may be available somewhere, may be obscure: the author organizes it and infuses it with his or her understanding to make it something new.

The markets for games and books are behaving similarly, as well.  There's an oversupply of both, with the result that more and more games and books are being published each year, and on average each is selling fewer and fewer copies.  Hence the notion that you'll get rich designing boardgames becomes yet more ridiculous every year.  (It's happening in video games, too, with the average game on the Apple Store making all of $500 (median).)

Thanks to the difficulties of working with a Chinese printer for the first time, my adventure game Sea Kings from Worthington Publishing is now delayed until sometime in mid-summer.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Gameplay Depth versus Variety

These are two out of about a hundred screencasts in my as-yet-unpublished course "Strategic Wargame Design."  Slide text below. 

(My preview is showing a blank for the screencasts, but last time this was just a delay in Blogger.  In case the embedded videos don't show up, the URLs are:
 Gameplay Depth and Variety (Breadth) part 1
Gameplay Depth and Variety (Breadth) part 2

Here is the text of the slides; I say more in the screencasts, of course, than that.
Gameplay Depth versus Variety
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher

A Difficult Topic
Because everyone seems to mean something different when they say “depth”
And because there are several kinds of depth
My main focus here is on gameplay depth
But we’ll talk about breadth (variety), and about other kinds of depth in games.

Gameplay Depth
A matter of making good choices:
When there are several plausible choices
Only some of them viable (likely to lead to success)
Which viable one is best depends on the situation (there is no always-correct solution)
And which one you choose makes a difference in whether you succeed
Furthermore, in deep games, choices tend to lead to other decisions you may not have been aware of beforehand

A Large Number of Decisions?
Gameplay depth comes not from the NUMBER of decisions, but from the quality of the choices and their importance to the outcome of the game
If there are too many decisions, ultimately no individual decision really matters
Or if some decisions are much more important, why are the trivial ones still in the game?????
What if you Can’t Lose?
Think about this: if you can’t lose, can it be a deep game by this definition?
If decisions don’t really make a difference, what does it matter?
This is the case with many video games
Even in Rogue-likes, you can get out of the game, copy the save file, then go back
Lack of losing is also in the nature of puzzles, and most single-player video games are puzzles more than games
Yes, you can give up before you solve the puzzle
In a transparent game it’s easy to see what the right decisions are
So someone can play once or twice and know most of what he/she needs to know to play as well as just about anyone
You can’t play a deep game a few times (or for a few hours) and then have a good handle on how to win/succeed
You just haven’t seen enough of it
But most (especially tabletop) games these days are designed so that you DO have a good handle, after one play
This avoids frustration/work for the players
But often results in a game that is only played once or thrice
Decisions without Always-Correct Solutions
Games that repeatedly put players "on the horns of a dilemma", decisions that do not have always-correct solutions, are more likely to have gameplay depth.
Resource management games can put you on the horns of a dilemma as there's always more you want to do than your resources allow.  But the consequence is quite different than from, say, a wargame
And there’s often a single optimal solution
Depth in Wargames
In a wargame, if you make the wrong decision, it could result in losing a territory, or having a ship sunk, or an army destroyed.
In a RM game, it results in less-than-optimal progress
In RM you're looking for optimal moves, and there usually is a solution.
In wargames, especially multi-sided (more than two) games, there may not be an always-correct solution (almost never is in multi-sided)
Other Kinds of Depth in Games
I’ve been talking about gameplay depth, but there are other kinds of things that people call “deep”
Puzzle depth
Model depth
And even story depth
But these are not about gameplay decisions, they’re about other aspects of the game
Well, puzzle depth is about decisions; but in a never-changing, ultimately predictable, environment

Puzzle Depth
Depth here in the sense of a long sequence of choices leading to ultimate success
Where you must make the right choice
Keep in mind, puzzles have always-correct solutions
Which means always-correct choices
And an essentially static environment
Beyond formal puzzles we have “games” that are solvable, such as chess, checkers, tic-tac-toe
Beyond that we have single-player games that may not involve random elements such as “dice”
When you solve it, you “beat the game”
Any game you can “speed run” in a few minutes is essentially a puzzle with an always-correct solution
Even if there are some random elements
Good games don’t have always-correct solutions (a “dominant strategy” is bad)
Story Depth
Lots of branches to the story, lots of choices that make or break the participant(s)
The old Final Fantasy games have a lot of story, though the gameplay is quite repetitive (and shallow)
So “depth” here is related more to intricacy than to right choices
Face it, in many if not most great stories, the protagonist is very lucky in his choices (and in what happens that he cannot control)

More in Part 2

Model Depth
The question here is, is the game a good model of whatever it is depicting?
Don’t confuse looks (photo-realism) with decisions
Are the decisions you make the same kind of decisions, same kinds of choices, a person could make in that real situation?
Do the things that happen in a game correspond with things that happen in the situation depicted?
The more that decisions, choices and occurrences correspond with the actual situation, the better the “model depth”
So, for example, FPS fail dismally as models
World of Tanks has the trappings of model depth to attract “war buffs”, but what you DO deviates immensely from reality in several vital respects
Same for World of Warships
Which isn’t to say they cannot be fun, they’re just not good models of war in the most important respects

Contrast with Variety
When contemporary  gamers talk about “depth” in a game, they often mean variety
They confuse depth and variety because they haven’t played many games with real gameplay depth
There’s a lot of decisions because there’s a lot of variation
But those decisions don’t necessarily matter, both in what you choose and in how it turns out
Moreover, if there are too many decisions, individually they tend to cease to matter, even if there’s a winner and loser
Especially in single-player video games, which can quickly get quite repetitive without sufficient variety, because there’s no human opponent
Variety is Breadth, not Depth
Perhaps they don’t recognize actual depth because they play games where you can respawn and can go back to saves
Variety is providing more things to do, but the decisions and choices don’t change their character, decisions don’t lead to “deeper”, hidden decisions
Instead, some of the parameters of the decisions change
Such as, when you play a spell-caster instead of a hack’n’slasher
You do things differently, but there’s nothing deeper about it
The result is breadth rather than depth
In a loot-fest like Diablo III you don’t even have to stick with your decision, you can change when you like (skill allocations etc.)
Think how much players like customizable characters
But what they choose mostly doesn’t matter to the outcome

Too many decisions:
Too many for the player to keep track of
So many that each one, individually, doesn’t really matter even if there’s a winner and loser
This is one reason for keeping games fairly simple, if you want a deep game rather than a broad game

Ideally . . .
Ideally you have both depth and variety
But some game players don’t want to think hard, to work to find the hidden decisions
For them, variety is quite sufficient
I think this is much less true for strategic wargame players, than for gamers as a whole

Digression: Another Kind of “Depth”?
Audience suggestion that there’s another kind of depth, that requiring highly-developed physical skills
In other words, we might call it Athletic Depth
And it’s only going to apply to games requiring dexterity, eye-hand coordination, etc.
This does also involve making good decisions related to the physical needs of success
It also requires a very high standard of athleticism, so that most people just won’t be able to do some of the harder things
Like the proverbial “200 actions per minute” in Starcraft
It’s more a part of “athleticware” than of “brainware”

Just scratching the Surface
I’ve written more than 6,000 words about depth in games
And I have to revise and extend it!
These videos are 135-140 words per minute . . . 6,000 would be about 45 minutes
But this will have to do for this course
I am planning a separate advanced course just about depth in games

Party games don’t have much depth, but may have breadth.  Traditionally, hobby games had depth.  Now, they tend to have breadth – variety - or puzzle or story depth, not gameplay depth

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Video (screencast) 10 “Need to Knows” that Make a (Hobbyist) Game Good

Well, Blogger seems to be defective.  In editing I see the images of the two videos I've embedded.  But the preview shows a big blank space.  Same thing for past four days with two browsers.  I even published temporarily a post with just one embedded video, and the published version showed nothing.  So I have to include the URLs for the videos:

The following is the text of the slides; there is more to the presentation, of course, than just this text.
10 “Need to Knows” that Make a (Hobbyist) Game Good
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
“Game Design” channel on YouTube
Overall considerations
Doesn’t matter whether it’s a video game or tabletop
You can’t say “because it’s fun!” – “fun” depends on the player, there is NO UNIVERSAL FUN
Know your audience (NOT you, unless you’re designing only for yourself, not for publication)
You have to satisfy what they think/feel is “fun”
Playtest with your audience
Keep in mind the three kinds of games/game players:
Math (chess)
People (multi-sided games)
Story (Japanese RPGs)
We can’t specify universal “Good Traits”
Because types of games vary so much
party games, family games, kids’ games, games for adults, “adult” games, single-player games, games for more than one player (or more than two), cooperative games, drinking games, etc.
So here we’re talking primarily about “hobbyist games”, games played by adults for whom game-playing is a hobby
Even within hobby games:
 some people “hate dice” (chance), some people like them; some people dislike “long” games (however long that is), some people prefer them; some people want to challenged, some just want to relax; etc.
If it’s a game: "A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."  Antoine de Saint-Exup'ery
If it’s actually a puzzle: complexity may help make the puzzle harder and the “game” last longer before it’s solved
Most single-player “games” are mostly or entirely puzzles
“Multiplayer solitaire” is a puzzle
The List
Interaction (with players, with the game)
Interesting, non-trivial choices
Player control
Balance (fairness)
Easy-to-use interface
Hook/early play
And we have an 11th that isn’t something to make games good, it’s something to make games more marketable: visual appeal
Interaction (with players, with the game)
Two major types of interaction
With the game (the environment, the system – PvE)
With people (which, obviously, requires at least two players - PvP)
Single-player games/puzzles have virtually no people interaction
And several flavors of people interaction
Targeted (hinder or help specifically and immediately)
Or Anticipatory (blocking)
Direct (player-to-player)
Or Indirect (temporarily controlled intermediating entities involved)
(I will do a separate screencast about interaction…)
Interesting, non-trivial choices
Sid Meier’s (Civilization, Pirates) definition – a series of interesting, non-trivial choices (or challenges)
As for trivial:
Chutes & Ladders, Candyland, LCR (Left Center Right), have no choices at all
For children or for (slightly drunk) partiers
But they’re not “hobby games”, either
And “solved” games have no choice in practice, such as Tic-tac-toe
Avoiding “sameness” in a game, providing new experiences
Phases provide replayability, of a sort, within a single game
See my blog post, I can’t make that clickable)
Or my screencast about level/adventure pacing on my Game Design YouTube channel
Replayability can come from depth (nature and quality of decisions), or from sheer variety, or both
Designer can include variable setups (such as Settlers of Catan’s hex tile board layouts), additional scenarios, characters, other asymmetric aspects
The events in the game are so striking that players discuss them after (and long after) the game is done
“Water-cooler moments” or “the anecdote factory”
How do you make a game memorable?
It’s harder to do with an abstract game (even one with an “atmosphere”)
When events can be related to some reality, they’re easier to remember
Variety, whether from lots of options or from depth of options, can throw up memorable moments
Games where players “write their own story” (emergent, sandbox)
And a game where the story is imposed on the players is memorable (but that quickly wears out, it’s kind of a one-shot) (progressive, linear)
Player Control (?)
Hobby gamers like to feel that they have some control over what happens to them
Especially the really “serious” players
On the other hand, some players, especially casual, are happy to go along with a story (I call it, “being led around by the nose” – I like control)
So one person’s feast is another person’s famine
Balance (Fairness)
Fairness is important in the West, not so much in East Asia
Appropriate reward for effort & skill (single-player)
An equal chance to win (more than one player)
Balance of power of character classes (in “experience” games)
No advantage in going first (or last) in turn-based games
Chess is very unfair (white wins far more than black), but tournaments are organized to account for this
Ways for a player to modify the game as they like
Especially in character creation
Or as in Risk Legacy, where customization is available (and, MOST unnecessarily, destructive)
Games that lend themselves to variants, such as Diplomacy
Level editors in video games
Relatively easy modding in video games
Easy-to-use interface
All games have interfaces – ways to manipulate and command the game, and to find out what happens
Board and card games have been around so long, interface tends to be standardized
A poor interface can ruin the experience of playing a game, especially a video game
Moreover, Interface is one of the parts of a game where non-standard methods should be avoided
They throw players off their game
Symmetric – everything/everyone starts the same
Asymmetric is the opposite – typical in two-player historical wargames
Asymmetric presents more problems and more opportunities – built in replayability
But it’s much harder to balance (my bane: Britannia)
Hook/early play (21st Century)
In days of Instant Gratification, you have to grab a player early in a game, or they might quit
Really, before he or she plays the game (this is where miniatures make a big impact – the “toy factor”)
A strong hook is also important for marketing in days when there are thousands of games published, instead of dozens
“Discoverabilty” is a big problem
“What happened to Story?”
All games have narratives (an account of what happened), but thousands have no formal story (something constructed to entertain, with plot, characters, conflict, climax, resolution, etc.)
Historical games are more or less in between
Some players aren’t interested in games without formal stories – but most players don’t require them
I have to say, many video game designers appear to be frustrated fiction writers
See/hear “Are you a game designer or a fiction writer” on my Game Design YouTube channel
Marketing (Modern): Visual Appeal
Many modern games depend heavily on visual appeal
Take a game as simple as (and as solved as) Tic-tac-toe and make it look really good, and some will buy it
Battleship is an example, a traditional graph-paper game made to look much better (and 3D) at great cost
People who don’t even play chess will buy fancy chess sets
Miniature figures sell lots of not-very-good games – the “toy factor” is powerful
A graphic about the variability
of fun
From Rob Donoghue
on Google+
Made with RPGs in mind, I
think, but applies generally.
Lots of possible axes, not just
Challenge and Story
More details in . . .
All of these issues are discussed at much greater length in my book-length audiovisual course, “Learning Game Design, as a job or a hobby”.  See PulsipherGames.Com for information (and a discount).

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Video (Screencast): 7 ways to learn game design

This is primarily for beginners, not for experienced pros, of course.

Here is the text of the slides.  The video includes much more than this text, of course.
7 Ways to Learn Game Design
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
“Game Design” channel on YouTube

It’s not Game Production
Game design isn’t about programming or art or sound
It’s about specifying how the game works, how it plays, which has to be enjoyable for players in your target market
Video games are software, but nothing in game design requires software
See “10 ‘Need to Knows’ about Game Design” on my Game Design YouTube channel ( )

Preliminary Considerations
You won’t be good at it, when you start out
Just as with most anything else that’s complicated
Just as with most big games you might play!
If you think it’s simple, you’ve got a big problem to overcome
What makes you a good game player, isn’t what makes you a good game designer
So forget about your gaming prowess
It’s not about “getting ideas”, it’s about execution

It’s a list, but not either/or – do several at once
Start with tabletop games
Start with Gamemaker
Start with the combination of Unity and Playmaker
Make small modifications to existing games
Read - a lot (and listen)
Take online classes
Earn a degree
Start with Tabletop Design
You don’t need programming skills to make tabletop games – you do need such skills (which have nothing to do with game DESIGN) to make software
You can’t “hide behind the computer” in tabletop
You can make quick changes and see how gameplay changes
Much harder to do with software games
I discuss this at greater length in my “Learning Game Design” online course

Start with Gamemaker: Studio
Originally created for learning (on PCs), but there are some commercial games made using this engine
Free version (though there’s a “pro” as well):
Drag and drop interface, no coding required
But it has coding built in
Excellent tutorial books available

Start with Unity and Playmaker
This is a favorite combination of university instructors
Unity is a professional, but inexpensive (free just for learning) development system
Used now by many developers for commercial games
Can be converted to many platforms

Make Small Modifications to Existing Games
For video games, this would be levels, using a level editor included in the game
More extensive modding requires extensive programming skills
For tabletop, make variants of well-known games such as Risk, Settlers of Catan, Diplomacy, even chess

Read - a Lot - and Listen, Too
Read about game design
Books, magazines, blogs
But also, read about how the world works, good history, good economics, good literature, etc.
Challenge yourself in your reading
Listen to podcasts, watch videos
Take online classes
But lots of classes with “game design” in the title are actually about game development, especially programming
In fact, aside from my own classes, there are just one or two MOOCs that are very basic
I recommend my own classes (of course!)

Take a degree in games
Be very careful
Lots of private, for-profit schools take advantage of student dreams
Many “colleges” are not regionally-accredited colleges, so the degree generally doesn’t count as a real degree
National accreditation, oddly enough, doesn’t count
Many “game degrees”, even when called game design, teach almost no game design, or the instructors have no clue
Often because the degree is offered to provide students for programming instructors to teach
Even not-for-profit degrees are very expensive (exception: community colleges)

In the end, you must Complete games
There is no substitute for completing games
Who cares about half-completed (half-baked?) games?
No one who counts in game development
You have to show you can do it if you want to be hired
Intention counts for little, it’s ACTION that counts
You have to submit a complete game to a publisher, not something partly finished, certainly not just an idea
More detail?
I discuss this topic at greater length in my online courses “Brief Introduction to Game Design” and “Learning Game Design, as a job or a hobby”
More info (and discount URLs (coupons)) at PulsipherGames.Com

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Video/screencast: What Attracts backers to Kickstarter Board and Card Games?

13+ minutes
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
“Game Design” channel on YouTube

I’m going to use the abbreviation KS for Kickstarter at times
I’m only talking about KS for board and card games – board games seem to fare better than card - not for video games or anything else

It’s Different – a “Dream machine”
I recently realized, “[Board and card] Games are works of and for the mind, not for the eyes.“
Traditional-style games are about thinking, not about looks
But that’s not how KS works
KS is a “dream system”, not a pre-order system (though sometimes it’s used for that, usually for an established franchise)
People go “all-in” for dreams, even others’ dreams; they don’t go all-in for pre-ordering, or for “pros”
They want to feel like they’re part of something new and cool

Selling “Dreams”

I received this tweet out of the blue one day: “ @lewpuls Soccer & design lovers should have this board game! RT and help making our dream come true!” [sic]
[RT = retweet, send to your followers]
Make our dream come true
People want to be something more than a “consumer”
And some people value intentions as much as actions
Young people value intention much more than in the past, I think.  Older people tend to remember “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

Feeling “in at the beginning” (or “part of the process”)
So expressing the intention to publish a game, is good enough for many younger people, not enough for many older people
Backers want to feel part of a creation
They want to see their name as a contributor
Backers love polls and votes about features to include in a game
They love reaching stretch goals that change the game
Consider the popularity of paid betas in video games (especially on Steam).  People want to be part of something that isn’t yet complete, hoping to influence it!

Eye-candy Sells, Especially on KS
Especially, miniature figures, but also lots of “cool” art
The quality of the actual gameplay is secondary with many backers
Or perhaps, they assume the gameplay will match the minis and art
Of course, there’s little or no correlation
Cool dice, even
And I’ll admit, I’ve supported three dice projects – but no board or card game projects

Lower than MSRP?

Getting a “deal” seems to be secondary
James Mathe suggests a five dollar discount is sufficient
Read everything James Mathe has to say about KS
Now when KS is acting as a pre-order/”P500” system, a larger discount may be expected, as is typical for P500

Maybe it’s my age, but I see “pre-reviews” as a call to “shenanigans”
And paying someone to do a review for you?  Good heavens!
Why would anyone trust such things?
But this comes back to intentions, I think.  Younger people don’t seem to be suspicious of what might be happening with these “pre-reviews”
If a large company did this, though, I’ll bet there would be far more suspicion
It’s a matter of “the little guy’s dream” and trust in that dream

It’s not just in sports
There’s a bandwagon effect in KS, and reverse bandwagon
This is one reason why you “go low” with your goal and then push the stretch goals, to help encourage momentum
If you haven’t made the goal as the project winds down, will predict failure, and potential backers just won’t bother
Or will pull out!

Oddball Pledge Offers
These seem to work often enough to be worth trying, since a lot of $$$$ is involved
Autographed games, play a game with the designer, get a lengthy phone call from the designer, and so forth
I’ve seen offers taken where the designer of an RPG flies to the backer’s location and GMs a game for him/her and friends
(Sea Kings example)

Highly professional can be a barrier
A highly professional presentation may be a detriment!
Backers think, “they’re pros, they don’t need help”
Pros are often using KS as a pre-order system, not a “dream system”
Newbies, or “little guys”, elicit sympathy if not empathy
For example, “Lew Pulsipher” as designer does little for a KS; does more for normal marketing and sales
I’m not only established/have a track record, I’m OLD!

The Exception
When the game is a new edition or special reprint (e.g. Ogre, Age of Conan), then the audience already exists, will hear about it, and will support it
And a game with lots of eye-candy (especially miniatures) will work regardless of origin
Age of Conan has lots of minis; so did the special edition Ogre

Separate categories of publishers
Traditional publishers – self-fund and use traditional distribution (FFG especially)
P500 publishers – direct sales and distribution (GMT)
“Kickstarter” publishers – direct via KS, a little distribution (Minion, etc.)
Gamesalute may be unique in doing more KS than any game company, but then their own direct sales and distribution

Is Kickstarter a good gauge of how popular a game will be (how well it will sell)?
I doubt it greatly
The games don’t sell the KS to backers, dreams and intentions sell to backers
But that’s not how games sell in a shop, nor online
Stores and KS have different clienteles

Matt Green recently described the audience of Dice Tower as: “chrome-obsessed 21-40 years olds with short attention spans.”
This might describe the largest portion of Kickstarter board and card game backers, as well
As one publisher said, “The sense of entitlement that pervades KS is a difficult thing to combat.”
This fits with Matt’s description, and with the Millennial generation

I don’t think we apply these generalizations to people who buy games via traditional distribution

So to succeed on KS, it helps to:
Sell a dream
Seem like a “little guy” even if you’re not
Offer participation in the form and content of the final product
Appear to need help, even if you don’t
Offer eye candy
Or, go to an established clientele . . .

An Addendum
Do card games do less well than board games on KS?
So I’ve read
If so, why?
There are no miniatures
Card games seem simpler, less a “big deal”, and so less worthy of the all-in excitement typical of very successful KS project funding

Anything by Jamey Stegmeier (Stonemeier Games)
In RPGs, Fred Hicks

4,438 games successfully funded on KS (11/13/14)

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Video (screencast) What a convention or conference can do for a game designer

What a convention or conference can do for a game designer

Text of the slides is below.  Of course, there's much more to the screencast than the slides.

Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
“Game Design” channel on YouTube

Why should game designers go to Cons?
I’m mixing video game (conferences) and tabletop game (conventions) in this discussion
(Brief difference: conferences focus on how to make better games; conventions focus on playing games)
Meet publishers and funders
Learn new techniques
Stimulate ideas
Find collaborators
Find playtesters

To meet Publishers / Funders
While much of the world is online/”virtual”, I’m convinced that face-to-face is a much stronger connection, especially for those designers without a track record (newbies)
So go and meet publishers at cons, talk with them, volunteer to work at their booths, and so forth

To Learn New Techniques
Conferences are all about talks to help you make games better
Examples: East Coast Game Conference 14
Putting stories into games
Game pitches
At tabletop conventions, seeing all the new games, playing them or watching them being played
Big tabletop conventions have many seminars (GenCon) about making and selling games
I do them myself at PrezCon, WBC, GenCon, sometimes ECGC

Stimulation of Ideas
When I go home from a tabletop convention or ECGC, I’m full of game ideas
In the case of ECGC, mostly for videos for my classes, and for things that would go into books
I drive (up to 650 miles one way), so I have lots of time to think, recording my thoughts on my easy-to-manipulate PDA-voice recorder
Of course, you have to follow-up once you get home

To Find Collaborators
I do not look for collaborators, but some people work better with another person
If you are looking for a non-local collaborator, where better to look than at a con?
If you hear someone speak about things that interest you . . . Talk with them

To Find Playtesters
As for playtesters, that’s more problematic, but you might find some willing to blind test
Of course, you might persuade people to playtest at the convention, but often people want to play the new published games, not prototypes

Keep an Open Mind. Everything at a con should be stimulating for a designer.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

11 More "need to Knows" about game design

This 12+ minute screencast is primarily for aspiring designers, not for professionals.
This is a followup to "10 'need to knows' about game design"

The text of the slides follows.  Of course, there's a lot more to the screencast than this text.
11 MORE “need to knows” about Game Design
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
“Game Design” channel on YouTube
Original 10 Wasn’t Enough
I started with 10 “ntk”
But I thought of more than 10, so here some more.  Keep in mind, the first 10, taken as a whole, are the most important
But these 11 are also important

The List
Focus on the essence
Professionals design for other people, not for themselves
Professional game design is about discipline, not self-indulgence
Game Design is not Mind Control
There is no perfect game
You probably won’t be good at game design, at first
Games are not just Mechanics
Making a good game takes a LOT of time
Piracy is everywhere (for “digital” goods)
You’re an Entertainer, or a teacher, not a gift to the world
“Fail Faster”

Focus on the Essence
My motto: "A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."  (Antoine de Saint-Exupery)
Another form, about Japanese gardening, is "Your garden is not complete until there is nothing else that you can remove."
If you’re making a puzzle, complexity might be a goal; If you’re making “an experience”, simplicity may not be a goal.  For most games, the goal is to keep only what you absolutely need

Professionals design for other people, not for themselves
 [As this has been misunderstood by someone who didn't listen to the screencast, I interject the following: Your primary goal (for most games, recognizing there are specialized such as educational) is to entertain other people, not yourself.  The goal is to entertain, the design is for other people.  As such, any list of features that you think will make your game a surefire hit will likely turn into a soul-less mess.  So perhaps I could have worded the slide, "Professionals work to entertain other people, not themselves".]
Your job is to entertain or enlighten other people
You are not typical, or you wouldn’t be designing games!
So what you like, may not be typical of what large groups like
Don’t rely solely on your own opinions about the worth of a game
I recently had a game published that I didn’t think was a Big Deal, just a nice little game – but others had different opinions
And I have had games I thought were outstanding, but have not been published

Professional game design is about discipline, not self-indulgence
Many designers are self-indulgent, often thinking of themselves as “artists” who are blessing the world with their brilliance – so they do whatever they want
POPPYCOCK! (Though you can do this if you’re not interested in selling any games . . .)
Do player-centric, not designer-centric (or art-centric) design
Game design is compromise.  It’s never “perfect”

Game Design is not Mind Control
Some designers want to, in effect, control all that the player is doing and thinking
And if you think about it, a novel can be approached in this way
Though most novelists want to influence, not control
Linear video games can approach this ideal
But most game players want to have the ability to control the outcome of the game (and want “agency” as well)
Better to think of game design as offering players opportunities, not forcing anything on the players

There is no perfect game
There are dozens of genres for a reason
Tastes of game players vary as much as tastes of music-lovers.  (I dislike rap.  I like classical.  Some people love rap.  Some hate classical.  And so on.)
And there’s no room for perfectionism in professional design
You need to get games DONE.  Especially in video games
The Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns sets in quickly for professionals, less so for hobbyist designers
So at some point, you have to finish even though the game isn’t perfect

You probably won’t be good at it, at first
How often do you start to do something complex, requiring a lot of critical thinking, and yet you’re immediately good at it?  Never!
Most complex things worth doing, take a long time to do well
Even playing a game well can take a long time to master
Some theorize that you need a great many opportunities to fail/succeed before you can become good at something
And there’s the “10,000 hours” notion, too, though I don’t take the quantification seriously

Games are not just Mechanics
What matters is the impression you make on the player(s)
MDA: Mechanics, Dynamics, “Aesthetics” (I prefer “Impressions” for the last)
Collections of mechanics can feel soul-less
If you choose mechanics based on a model, they tend to fit together; if they’re just collections, they’ll often not fit together

Making a good game takes a LOT of time
Most of what happens in game design takes place in the mind – of the designer, and of the players
Outsiders/non-practitioners tend to minimize the difficulty because they don’t see it happening
Moreover, it’s easy to get a game to 80%, it’s the last 20% that takes most of the game design time and effort
And then, if it’s a tabletop game, scheduling and manufacturing can take many months
Mayfair recently published a game they’d had for 8 years
I have a game that may be published in 2015, publisher accepted it in 2005 [sic]

Piracy of “digitally”-produced games is rampant
And there’s practically nothing you can do about it
Free-to-play helps (in video games), but even the in-app purchases in F2P are pirated regularly
Fortunately, not much piracy in tabletop games (unless it’s primarily a rulebook, such as RPGs)

You’re an Entertainer or a Teacher, not a "gift to the world”
That is, if you want to be a commercial game designer
Publishers are in business to make money (mostly, but especially in video games)
Yes, you can self-publish
But a lot more people want games to entertain or enlighten them, than want games to be “art”
“We want to entertain people by surprising them, so I really don’t think we are psychologists – we are nothing but entertainers.” -Shigeru Miyamoto (Zelda, Donkey Kong, Wii Fit, etc. )
Reiner Knizia (over 500 [sic] published games) also says his purpose is entertainment

“Fail Faster”
You want to find all the ways your game can fail, and eliminate or fix them
So the faster you fail, the quicker you can eliminate or fix the failures
Or start over!
Get a playable prototype done as soon as possible – there is NO Substitute
If you’re doing a video game, try to make a paper prototype first, to try things out
Until I think of more ntk, enjoy your designing

Friday, November 28, 2014

Black Friday once-a-year online course sale for Lew's Udemy courses

Black Friday once-a-year sale: you've got to do it before someone beats you to it.
As you may know, I do not take part in Udemy's kamikaze marketing, nor in the craziness of affiliation. This may have cost me some money (all the big earners participate) but I prefer to treat online teaching as something like books and good college classes, not like get-rich-quick schemes and super-discounted PC video games. So I'm not part of Udemy's kamikaze Black Friday marketing.
I confess I haven't gone out to shop on Black Friday for longer than I can remember (and I'm 63). But I will "join in the party" online. I have not offered this kind of thing before and may not again, certainly not anytime soon.

So here is a one-time-this-year promotion. I have discounted my classes much more than normal, but there are a *limited number* of coupons for the discounts: three each at "level one", five at "level two"; and an unlimited number at the "normal" discount (which exists only because I get a much larger percentage from my coupons than when someone signs up directly, without a coupon).
As always there are plenty of free previews available in each course, and a 30 day money back guarantee.

This was offered first to people already in my classes, so it's possible that some levels are already exhausted.

Level One (three coupons each):
$20 off Learning Game Design (list $59)
$10 off How to Design Levels/Adventures for Video and Tabletop Games (list $33)
$10 off How to Write Clear Rules (and game design documents) (list $29)
$5 off Brief Introduction to Game Design (list $12)
$9 off Get a Job in the Video Game Industry (list $15)
In percentage terms this is a very large discount, 60%, because it is my one class not primarily about game design.

Level Two (five coupons each):
$15 off Learning Game Design (list $59)
$7 off How to Design Levels/Adventures for Video and Tabletop Games (list $33)
$7 off How to Write Clear Rules (and game design documents) (list $29)
$4 off Brief Introduction to Game Design (list $12)
$6 off Get a Job in the Video Game Industry (list $15)

The "Normal" discounts (you'll recall I receive a larger cut from a coupon than from someone who pays full price, so I always offer these):
$10 off Learning Game Design (actual cost $49)
$4 off How to Design Levels/Adventures for Video and Tabletop Games (actual cost $29)
$4 off How to Write Clear Rules (and game design documents) (actual cost $25)
$3 off Brief Introduction to Game Design (actual cost $9)
$3 off Get a Job in the Video Game Industry (actual cost $12)
"Joys of Game Design" is always discounted to $5 from Udemy's $9, no special discounts here:

Conventions and Conferences
I have completed the first part of a free course about game conventions and conferences. I may not be able to post it on Udemy (it will be on because so much of it is not yet done.

I'll be giving a talk about "Space Wargames" at PrezCon in Charlottesville, VA in late February.   I love designing them, though many of the published space wargames are too detailed for my liking (or too bloodless!).

Monday, November 17, 2014

Characteristics of game boards

Game Design: Discussing “The Board”
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
“Game Design” channel on YouTube

Describing, not Defining
Because as soon as someone says “definition”, someone else will nitpick it
Given the loosey-goosey nature of English, absolutely clear definitions are nearly impossible
So, I’m just going to talk about game boards, not “define”

Why Boards?
A board is a natural way to depict maneuver and geospatial relationships
Which are virtually required for wargames
Cards don’t naturally do this
Yes, you can use a “board” as a status indicator without any reference to spatial relationships
As in some Eurogames
We’re interested in boards as fields for maneuver that depict geospatial relationships

Is there a formula for designing a board?
I’ve seen novice designers ask for a formula, as though everything in game design can be reduced to rote, to always-correct solutions
In short: NO!
Game design is about critical thinking, the opposite of rote learning
But we can see common characteristics in many “classic” game boards
And common ways to make boards

Square Grid
Chess, checkers, tic-tac-toe, Stratego, many others (even the video game Civilization (I through IV, V went to hexes)
Easy to see, easy to make a prototype, easy for players to understand
But movement diagonally is very distorted (1.41 times as far, per square)
Adjacency is a problem: is it four
squares adjacent, or eight?
But if you’re depicting walls or a city
 road grid, squares are very useful

Areas (like a map)
Looks most natural of all boards
Diplomacy, Risk, Axis & Allies, Britannia, a great many games that cover a large geographical area
Often used when more than one piece can be in a location (though Diplomacy allows only one per area)
Provides room for “individuality”, avoiding the geometric precision of squares and hexes

Hexagons (“hexes”)
Hex means six
Adjacency is clear – six adjacent vice 8
The typical wargame grid
Do hexes put people off?
Not uniform
Looked at one way, there are two ways forward
Look at it 90 degrees from that, there are three ways forward
Less distance distortion than squares (but contrary to popular belief, there IS distortion)
Not good for straight lines (such as walls or city roads)
(Illustration is a hand-drawn prototype board for my game Dragon Rage (1982, 2011)

The illustration (a space empires game prototype) is for outer space, but most are for land areas
Allows easy representation of routes, paths, bridges,  chokepoints, impassable terrain

All grids are ways of showing connectivity
Here’s a connectivity diagram of the FFG Britannia map
The relationships between areas are exactly the same
But notice lines crossing in a few places

Other Grids
Circular (IMM prototype board)
Spiral (Four Elements prototype board)
And many variations
Not always Maneuver . . .
Some games only provide for placement, not maneuver, such as Ingenious, my prototype Law & Chaos (Mayfair someday)
These are hex boards, but it’s not always hexes for placement – tic-tac-toe for example
Go, of course, is placement-only, and uses the intersections of a square grid

What do they have in Common?
Number of areas in many classic games doesn’t differ wildly from chess’s 64
When it does, it’s often a hex board
Diplomacy 70-some (IIRC), Risk 42, Britannia 37 +6 seas
This also depends on number of pieces
Tends to be fairly high in games with lots of hexes, such as wargames
Piece count: Diplomacy 34, Risk “a lot”, Britannia about 55

Number of Connections?
If we want to analyze boards further, we’d count number of connections to each area (which I actually did with that space wargame)
Hex board, this is always 6.  Square board, always either 4 or 8, depending on whether diagonals are counted
Examples of Pacific Convoy and DS – number of connections does matter
And we’d relate number of areas and number of connections to typical number of pieces
But you can overthink anything in games.  Try actually playing on a board and you’ll find out a lot, if you pay attention

Think of a board as a connectivity diagram for maneuver (or placement), and go from there to choose the grid that works best for your game.