Sunday, December 04, 2016

Triptych VIII: Three separate topics in one post

(Except this time it’s four to get to a 1,000 words. . .!)

Programming is not “Integral” to Games
Pop History
Special Powers Card Games 
Virtual Reality

Programming is not “Integral” to Games
(Originally written in 2009. And we now see, with Unity, how much easier it is to make video game software than in 2009.) I don't regard video games as fundamentally different from non-electronic games.  There are tens of thousands of non-electronic games that were never touched by a programmer.  If the video game designer had some "magic" (technologically advanced) way to create the software - and as time goes on and technology improves, this will be the case - then programmers would be unnecessary.

That's why I regard programming as a necessary evil of video games, not fundamental to games.

It is already the case that someone who isn't a programmer by training or inclination can create the equivalent of Pac-Man with Gamemaker in a fairly short time.  More and more complex video games will be made without trained/professional programmers.

Ultimately, programming is "donkey work," something that ought to be done by machines.  But I could say the same about many kinds of work.  Some of those kinds of work have already disappeared or are disappearing, some will disappear.  Programming is going to be done by machines--already is, in many cases, though the machines are using software created by programmers - long before design or art is done by machines.

***

Pop History
I read something recently about a game covering the fall of Rome in Britain, and about incorporating Arthurian stories into it.

Yes, I included Arthur in Britannia, but that was literary license, not history.

Yes, there are lots of books supposedly about Arthur, all amounting to "well, this could have meant that, and could have been about the person we call Arthur" that then transforms into "this was Arthur".  It's a big industry of speculation with virtually no foundation, much more fiction than fact. There is NO contemporary evidence for "Arthur", almost no contemporary evidence for *anything* in this time period. ("Dark Ages",  remember? Dark because of lack of information, not a comment on the standard of living.)

A big reason why history changes so much from one generation to the next, is that so much of it is malleable rather than certain. History becomes, not fact, but fiction intended to appeal to the desires or needs of contemporaries.

"Pop" history, video history as we sometimes see on the History Channel, is a reflection of this. It's history as modified by what "the masses" want it to be.

***

Special Powers Card Games
One reason why Magic:the Gathering  became successful is that it was, if not the first game, one of the first games where the main interaction is between the cards of the two players, using special powers that are exceptions to the rules. That has been generalized for many card games, it's a kind of game that's easy to make, and I know several budding designers whose first game is of this type.

I am not a fan of them because they don't have anything do with reality. Some of the people who are designing the games may think so - but there's a weak grasp on reality these days. Yu-Gi-Oh is even worse because lacks the constraint of "lands".

For me any "theme" in these games is just a gloss. It's not something that actually affects how the cards are played or how the game is designed. It doesn't help people understand how the game works, either.

My name for this kind of game is "Special Powers Card Game" (SPCG).

***

Virtual Reality
Pundits are still pontificating about whether virtual-reality games (VR) will succeed as a business, and have been since the announced release date for the Oculus VR with the anticipation that it’s Valve and Sony competitors would be not far behind.

I have not used one of these contemporary VR systems, and I read that people who do are often converted to the cause. My experience goes back some decades when (at a convention I cannot otherwise recall) I put on a primitive VR-like device. It was suspended as a pair of eyeglasses, but with one side empty and the other side occupied by a small module. That module produced a red dot on black screen display (this tells you how old it was) that substituted for the screen display of typical computers of the time. You could see the “screen” with one eye while the other could see your normal surroundings. I didn’t try to play a game with it but I was quite impressed with how very well it substituted for a screen.

I also recall, in the early to mid 90s, watching a graphical “virtual tour” of a part of the new Womack Medical Center that was being built. The 486 computers of the day really weren’t fast enough to render the tour in more than slow motion. It was quite fascinating nonetheless.

More recently I’ve seen augmented reality (AR) games, and I understand that game developers are far more gung ho about AR than about VR, yet few of them are actually producing AR products. [Written before Pokemon Go was released! I bet a lot more are working on AR now.]

Within the past six or seven years I’ve also been in a virtual-reality chamber where three walls showed a seascape and you could walk around looking at it.

Recognizing that computing power is still advancing rapidly, and thinking about how the graphical capabilities of computers have changed from the old ASCII graphics to modern 3-D, it appears to me to be inevitable that VR will succeed sooner or later. Too many people want to reach the Star Trek holodeck stage for maximum immersion.

Whether the current products will start that progression, or fail as those of the past have failed, is subject to all kinds of chance and unforeseen factors (such as hygiene?). Remember, the best products don’t always prevail in the marketplace (Betamax versus VHS VCR for example). Timing is very important, and we have no idea, even now with products out there, whether the timing is good.

***

My Black Friday/Christmas sale on my online game design courses is listed on my website, http://pulsiphergames.com/#BlackFriday

Doomstar has sold better than the average mobile game, though how it compares with other PC (and Mac/Linux) games I do not know. It’s on Steam as “Lew Pulsipher’s Doomstar” but Doomstar is good enough to search. Or buy from the publisher https://largevisiblemachine.itch.io/doomstar

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore

Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore

Lewis Pulsipher

For the first time in a few years, I refereed a fantasy role-playing game. In this case I was using my own simplified rules (“Basic (Fantasy) RPG”), in order to playtest them, and I was running a game for my usual college playtesters.

Keep in mind that I started playing D&D in 1975. The title refers to how things are a lot different than they were in 1975, at least in role-playing games. Role-playing games have been badly influenced by video games, where you cannot lose because you can always go back to a save game, then worsened with MMOs and free-to-play games. The practice there is to constantly reward people so they'll continue to play, so that ultimately spend some money on in-game purchases/transactions.

So the players were constantly wondering where the loot drop was when they bumped off a few kobolds that wandered by, or some other wimpy monster. But worse, I saw manifestations of something I read about recently, where players frequently experiment with items to try to find “creative” ways to use them, and expect the referee to accommodate them.  (For example, rub a little healing potion on a wound and expect it to heal it.) One player had been captured and probably killed (as far as other players knew) by a fairly powerful monster; he was unconscious. In his backpack, wrapped up in a bag, he had a crystalline disk, about the size of a frisbee, that they picked up from some phraints (thri-keen). He wanted the disc to slip out of the bag, somehow, then out his backpack, and cut the monster in half! I just looked at him and said no, but he had already decided that there had to be a chance for it and rolled dice as though he was rolling for it. I told him, if I were to give you a roll for that, and I don't, you'd have to take 10 six sided dice and roll six on everyone. (The chances were actually MUCH worse than that, but it was enough for me to think he’d shut up. No, he proceeded to gather up 10 six sided dice and roll them. (Keep in mind, this lad is a freshman and appears to enjoy being an annoying younger brother.) It didn’t count, of course, and of course he didn’t come close to 10 sixes.

There was another player who was constantly trying to do tricks – what *he* called creative – with the dead kobold that he carried around on his back. He evinced astonishment whenever he couldn't do what he wanted, and at one point he even said “you’re interfering with my creativity.” Well, creativity has to be associated with reality, and many things he was trying to do just didn't make any sense. That's not creativity, that's brain fever.

Now I know that many younger people playing role-playing games indulge in this kind of so-called creativity all the time, but I won't have any of it. Creativity in problem-solving is desirable, but not when flying in the face of physics or other realities.

Another of the things he felt he ought to be able to do, is run away from some enemies who were beating on him (melee), then stop, turn around and shoot them in the face with his self bow. I said, these guys are right on top of you. You turn around and run away, when you turn back to shoot them they're gonna be there and they're going to break your bow with their weapons. If nothing else. He didn't seem to understand how that would be. Of course, in some game rules when you run away like that the opponents get a free attack on you and then you could pull off what you said. I was treating it like a realistic situation in this case - it was a playtest - and there was no way he could do this.

It was also a one-shot game rather than a campaign, so they didn't take it as seriously as they might have otherwise. At least they enjoyed it.

In olden days you had to “train” players to accept limitations. I suppose that’s true today as well, but contemporaries strongly dislike constraints, and often want this kind of game to be a playground, not a game where you have to earn something.

****
The “exigencies of life” (and hurricanes) have interfered with this blog.  I still (until the past couple weeks) post a screencast (video) each Thursday on my “Game Design” YouTube channel (http://www.youtube.com/user/LewGameDesign).

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Dirigible Diplomacy

(I don't know when I devised this variant - decades ago, no doubt, when I was devising Dipvariants regularly. I've just run across it in my note program, and as I've been contemplating a "steampunk" game involving "dirigible juggernauts", I decided to post this one in the blog.)

This variant is partially based on H.G. Wells' novel, "The War in the Air".  Written in 1907, the book depicted the development of air forces which were both very destructive and cheap and easy to build.  The main force were huge rigid-framework hydrogen-filled airships (known in 1914 as dirigibles or Zeppelins).  Wells however did not foresee the real expense and maintenance required.  Also, dirigibles were very vulnerable to special bullets fired by aeroplanes (such bullets did not exist when Wells wrote his novel).  For purposes of this variant however, we assume Wells to be partially right; dirigibles are stronger than they were in World War I.

1. There is an additional type of unit, the dirigible air fleet (D).  Several huge airships and heavier-than-air machines carried by them comprise a D, which is relatively cheap to build but also fragile.

2. Each supply center yields five supply points (SP) each game year.  Each year it costs the following to supply a unit:  Army or Fleet - 4 SP, Dirigible - 3 SP.  SP may not be accumulated or transferred to another player, so any extra are lost.

3. The game begins with a 1900 building session.  Using their SP from home supply centers (15 except Russia, 20) each player builds units of this choice in his home centers.  A dirigible may be built in a center which also contains a normal army or fleet.  Russia, however may not build fleet ST. Pete north coast in 1900.

4. D orders are treated as an additional set of conflicts taking place above armies and fleets.  As well as acting for and against one another, D's may support an attack on, or defense in the space directly "below" (the one the D occupies), but may not themselves attack.  Therefore a D cannot cut support by an army or fleet.  Armies and Fleets have no effect on D's.  When a D supports an army or fleet it may not do anything else and an attack on it by another D will cut the support.

5. Only one D may occupy a space, but an army or fleet, even one belonging to another player, may also occupy the space.

6. If a D is dislodged, it is automatically disbanded.

7. A D cannot be built in a center where a D of another player is present even though the opponents D cannot capture the center.  However, if the country is entitled to a build, an army or fleet may be built if the center is not devastated.

8. A D may not capture a supply center, but if alone in the center in spring or fall it may "devastate" it.  A unit may not be built in a devastated center and it is not counted in supply center totals, for the next adjustments only.  Afterwards it reverts to normal.  A player may not devastate a center he owns.

9. A D may not transport an army.

10. A player wins when he owns nineteen undevastated supply centers.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

"The War in the Air"

My vaguely Stratego-like game Doomstar (video version of unpublished tabletop game) was released on Steam September 16. Another, (tabletop) Pacific Convoy, is supposed to be published by Worthington Publishing, though one can never be certain about such things.

Continuing to move further from Stratego/L'Attaque (from which Stratego itself closely derives), I'm trying to create a Steampunk game "The War in the Air", that will use plastic figures with numbers on the bottom, reminiscent of the old comic-book-ad game Convoy Terror (https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/14486/convoy-terror). In Convoy Terror there were several different sculpts of ships, for example, a set of destroyers, a set of cruisers, and a set of submarines. But the strength numbers on the bottom of each cruiser differed from one another, as did the strength numbers on the bottom of the destroyers, though you could be sure that a cruiser could beat a destroyer. The ships moved on a rectangular map in rectangular locations, but it amounted to the same kind of board as Stratego. If you think about it, though, you gained a lot of information from being able to see the difference between a submarine, cargo ship, battleship (there was only one), etc.

What I intend is to use baroque steampunk notions, such as dirigible juggernauts and steam bombers and diesel fighters. I'll also use ships and possibly land units, again resorting to such things on land as massive slow juggernauts and steam tanks. The numbers on the bottoms will overlap, that is, a strong unit of a weaker general type will be able to tie the strength of the weaker unit of the stronger general type. This will all be on a hex board where units will be able to move their speed (usually more than one) in a straight line only, except for the aerial units which will be able to move in a dogleg. With good sculpting it could look really interesting, and looks seem to count for a lot these days.

In Convoy Terror you had 10 cargo ships and the objective was to get cargo ships through to the other end of the board. I adapted a form of that in Pacific Convoy, where all unit identities are hidden as in normal Stratego. I'm not sure yet what I'm going to do in this game, which depends partly on whether I include the land element or just air and sea. If I include the land I'll have ports/cities and you'll have to control three of the four to win the game.

By the way, "The War in the Air" is the title of a novel by H. G. Wells that I read a few decades ago. It was written before World War I (1907) and posits a war of airships and flying machines that more or less destroys civilization. (In the early 20th century people did not understand how resilient civilization can be.) It fits with the idea that the aerial arm is much stronger than was true even in World War II. But I don't intend the game to be a representation of the book, I just like the title. Of course, titles of games do change.

Now as I think about this game without having played yet, the problem I see is that when you know the type of unit and know the range of strength there may be too much certainty in play leading to "analysis paralysis". I thought about using dice, but that's neither necessary nor desirably as a mechanic that would frequently come into play (each conflict). So I've devised a method to test that increases uncertainty without introducing a random factor. Each player will get a set of 13 cards identically numbered with zero, one, or two. When there is a battle each player will play one of these cards face down in and reveal it, and this will be added to the strength of the unit (which is generally from one through five). There will be bluffing and card management involved, and when all 13 cards are expended the player will get them back again to continue. (Why 13? The two small decks amount to 26 cards, and 27 is half of a standard 55-card deck.)

(I'm reminded now, having just reread a review of Convoy Terror, that it used the equivalent of dice on a number of occasions, though infrequently in ship-to-ship combat.  https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/683354/convoy-terror-genuine-gem-sixties)

My question is, will this introduction of the card element contribute to the interest of the game or will it be something that puts people off? (Keep in mind my game Swords and Wizardry (H. P. Gibsons, London, 1980), a much closer derivative of Stratego than the games I'm discussing now, did use a die when a player cast a spell.)


Friday, September 16, 2016

"Does playing board games with people always lead to frustration and anger?"

(This is another Quora answer, to the question quoted in the title.)

Of course not! Even with traditional-style board games that are directly competitive, most people remember most of the time that IT'S A GAME, not real-world.  A particularly cut-throat game like Diplomacy or Age of Renaissance may engender more anger than others, but there are lots of quite peaceful board games as well.

Traditional games are intended to frustrate, to pose obstacles, to create tension, but a well-designed game poses that tension in game terms, and most players are aware of the potential for frustration when they play the game. (Much of this tension is lost in single-player video games because you can save your game, and try over and over again until you like the result. In a board game, you can LOSE, and (in most cases) you can't call "REDO".)

Moreover, there are co-operative board games, and solo board games, where there is little or no conflict among players, who are playing against the game system, just as players usually do in video games.

There are certainly board games that are designed to de-emphasize conflict, to reduce emotion, usually because they are fundamentally puzzles rather than traditional-style games. Often they are so abstract that despite decoration/atmosphere, they have nothing to do with the real world (which tends to reduce unwanted tension). These games allow people to progress in their efforts to solve the puzzle, even if they don't do as well as someone else. They're parallel competitions where players can do little or nothing to hinder one another, like many Olympic sports, rather than direct competitions (such as in major-league sports). Most Euro-style games are of this type. I personally dislike this kind of puzzle-game, but they're very popular with many older folks, especially those who don't play video games.

If a person cannot accept that "it's a game", if a person cannot stand away from their own self-centeredness/ego, then they shouldn't play the kinds of games that provide direct human opposition. There are lots of ways to play against the system (computer or other programmed opponent as in co-op games) if the psychological side of game playing does not appeal.

***
My game Doomstar now available on Steam ($7.49 until Sept 23, list $9.99) http://store.steampowered.com/app/504750/?snr=1_620_4_1401_45

It's the boardgame in video form, not something designed as a video game from scratch. Works just like the (two player, turn-based) tactical boardgame. You can play against the computer (AI is weak), but it's mainly intended for playing against someone else online (which could include two computers in the same house, I think). It is vaguley Stratego-like, but much quicker (15-30 minutes for most games) and much more fluid.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

“Bad-ass Gamers”

One of the most worrisome aspects of the hard core video gamer culture is the ridiculous notion that being a "bad ass gamer" is both worthwhile and praiseworthy.  Not even close. It is unproductive.  It doesn't help your friends, your family, your community, your country, in any way.  It contributes nothing to the world.  It is purely empty egotism.  Virtually anyone who plays video games four hours a day (on average) is not acting as an adult.  (Which may be perfectly all right if that person is a youngster . . . or retired?)

A big reason why "the unwashed", those who are not into video games as a culture, tend to treat video games as "kid's stuff" is this childish egotism.  So what?  The "unwashed" includes a large fraction of the country,  especially of older people, the people who lead opinion and who make financial decisions.

It would be easy to write an article titled "When will video gamers grow up?"

In tabletop games males generally LIKE women gamers, because TT games are social, and because TTers don't tie their self-worth/ego to being a "bad-ass gamer".  (I met my wife in 1977 through D&D, when women gamers were much less common; two other people in that group of five married one another (though not attached when it began), and the last married my wife's best friend.  All still married.  Tabletop gaming is usually social.)

In video games we get a very vocal segment that appears to hate women, apparently seeing them as rivals.  The root of #gamergate is males who measure their self-worth through gaming, afraid of female competition.

I am also convinced that a significant proportion of rabid Hilary-haters use a different standard than they would with any male political figure, because she's a woman. If she were a man, Trump wouldn't stand a chance.

Monday, September 05, 2016

Video (screencast): “Snowball” and “Engine” Games



Following is the text of the slides:
“Snowball” and “engine” games
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
PulsipherGames.com
“Game Design” channel on YouTube http://youtube.com/LewGameDesign

Wazzat?
Snowballs – usually economic – occur when the player who is ahead, more or less inevitably continues to get further and further ahead
Like a snowball getting larger as you roll it through sticky snow
E.g. a game where you can research (or spend) to improve economic output, that allows you to produce more, which allows more research/spending, and so forth

“Engine” Games?
“Engine” games are all about providing the right inputs to get the best output
They are “natural puzzles”, exercises in optimization
An economic snowball game is usually an engine game, but there are other kinds of snowball games – the problem, though, is the same

More than Two Sides
Snowballs aren’t a serious problem in games for two or fewer sides
When one side gets the snowball rolling, the game should end
Whether by resignation or by the rules of the game
But we don’t have those options, generally, with more than two players
I do, in rules for a few point games that are multiplayer (more than two) wargames, provide for ending the game early if one side gets way ahead

Conditions
Snowballs can occur when:
1) the game is deterministic and there are no explicit catch-up mechanisms AND
2) there are few ways for one player to significantly hinder another
When someone gets ahead, then naturally he or she continues to get farther ahead

How to Prevent Snowballs?
1) Ways to directly hinder or harm another player (as in wargames)
2) Chance built into the “system” that could cause the leader to falter
But this is “leaving it all to chance”, not a good idea
3) An explicit catch-up mechanism
But many players dislike these
Any combination of these three are also possible

Wargames?
A well-designed wargame cannot be a Snowball
Because there are lots of ways to hinder other players
Two or more players can gang up on the snowball leader
But there are 4X wargames that become economic snowballs
Partly because other players don’t know it’s happening, so cannot react to stop it
Also computer Civilization (which is in many ways a 4X game)
(4X: Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate)

Be Aware
Many games, by their nature, don’t suffer from snowballing
But “engine” games often do
It’s up to the designer to guard against this
If you keep it in mind, you can look for it, and do something about it

An aside: it seems players rarely play a game more than a few times these days
If that’s the case, the snowballing doesn’t become obvious
But you should always treat your game as though it will be played dozens of times

“Snowballs” that cannot be stopped are a design flaw. But not uncommon these days.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

"Essential" (as in Essence) 4X Tabletop Game

Recently, Oliver Kiley described his desires for a 4X (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate) video game that did not rest largely on warfare. His idea is to have players compete to Transcend, for the race to rise to a higher plane of existence.

The problem is that if the players cannot compete with one another in a way that hinders or harms the others, then you're back to a multiplayer solitaire (parallel competition) kind of game, which I wouldn't want. I think Oliver wouldn't want it either. So the question I've been asking myself is what can we substitute for all-out warfare that still enables players to affect each other as they try to achieve their objective, whether it's Transcendence or something else.

The not-so-long-ago concluded Cold War is the obvious example, but I have been reading a maritime history of the world, and you to use in a game the kind of competition that the Portuguese, Dutch, English, Spanish, and others waged during the age of European expansion. This was sometimes called "no peace beyond the line", a reference to the virtual line drawn by the Pope to separate the Portuguese and Spanish areas of control early in the age of expansion. English, French, and Dutch, but especially the English, harried the Spanish in the Spanish Main and even in the Pacific Ocean, raiding their commerce and sometimes attacking their towns. In effect, there were rules of engagement, rarely broken, that usually prevented the competition from becoming all-out war, although all-out wars did result at times.

While at WBC I was told about a game that offers only three possible actions, and suddenly decided I'd like to try making a tabletop 4X game with 3 or 4 actions, to be played one action at a time in turn! It's intended to be the essence of 4X, as simple as possible so that players can concentrate on strategy, certainly not on resource management.

When I tried to make a list of essential actions, I came down to:
Explore
Colonize
Build Ships
Attack

You could try to combine Explore and Attack in a "Move" action, or Colonize with Explore or Build, and I may experiment with these combinations. But the list seems good, and as I couldn't make a full prototype and play it while traveling, I thought more about the game. I want a typical action to involve just one ship/fleet. At some point I realized that the Diplomacy model of movement and support would work, and adopted it here in a turn-based form that I've used in one other game years ago. I have a board I created for a co-operative space wargame that I've modified to try in play.

But mainly I tried to think of add-on modules, sets of rules that could be added to the simplest base game. So far I've come up with a Dipomatic module (possibly including forced non-aggression pacts), Sabotage, Trade, Technology, Culture (which could lead to "Transcendance"), and Commerce Raiding modules. Orbital Forts and Bishop's Rings (Halos) can be included in one module or another.

Now I have to make a prototype and test the basic idea. Delayed because "Britannia in Outer Space" has taken precedence!

***

I hope to get my comments about WBC and GenCon up here pretty soon.

ICYMI, the list price for my book "Game Design" has been nearly halved, to $19.99 (was $38). That's also reduced the ebook price to $9.99 (Kindle). This is much less than the price for any game design book I know of (not counting "anthologies" with many authors).




Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Two New Designs

When I started this blog a dozen or so years ago it was mostly a personal blog where I discussed what I was doing (in connection with game design). Gradually it became more formal, more like magazine articles at a time when magazines were disappearing (especially the paying ones). Some of the material in my book Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish, which I finish writing in 2011, first appeared in the blog. After the book I started making videos for online audiovisual classes, as well as my Game Design channel on YouTube, and I wrote less.

I’m starting to write more now - haven't recorded a video in five weeks - but some of it is informal, the kind of stuff I used in the early period of the blog. I think that’s going to continue.

What have I been doing (in game design) post WBC and GenCon? I had to get some stuff together to send to publishers that I talked to at the conventions, but mainly I’ve been trying to put together prototypes and play the four games that I devised in the 2 ½ week period I was away from home. Not only can conventions be stimulating to the imagination, the long drives (nearly 2,200 miles altogether) offer the opportunity to use my PDA to record voice notes about games. In effect, I tried to design games while I’m driving. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s considerably more likely to work when I have just been at a game convention.

Of course, some of the ideas never get beyond those voice notes, or transcription of the voice notes into Info Select (my old and expensive free-text database). But this time, three are taking shape and two have been played, one solo by me, another by players without benefit of me playing solo beforehand. That’s a first, but the (admittedly simple) game turned out to work very well.

The first game I thought of, and the one that most excites me, and also the one I’ve played solo four times, is “free-form Britannia in outer space!” I have used the free-form techniques I’ve devised and tested for the introductory version of Epic Britannia and for Conquer Britannia (the broad market version of Britannia.

Why am I doing this? It’s all Scott Pfeiffer’s fault. At WBC Scott - who was known as one of the outstanding players of the Avalon Hill version of Britannia - played in all three heats of the tournament. He cheerfully told me how the old version of Britannia is the best game ever while the newer version (second edition, Fantasy Flight) was a good game but not nearly as good as the old one. I disagree with him, but as we discussed the games it became clear that what he objected to was the additional constraints added to the second edition.

In contemporary games just as in contemporary life people object to constraints more strenuously than in the past, I think, because there are so many more things that we can do these days than, say 50 years ago. It’s an odd dichotomy, because games are by definition an artificial set of constraints that players agree to be bound by when they play the game. In particular, for example, Scott liked being able to keep raider armies out to sea indefinitely. This was actually a mistake made by the original British publisher/developer, a misunderstanding of how it was supposed to work, because I didn’t want Jute armies floating out in the English Channel long after the Jute homeland was no longer inhabited by Jutes! Nor the Angles waiting until the year 1000 to come into Britain. (You may have heard the story, I had dropped out of the gaming hobby for 20 years and first saw someone play the published version of Britannia in 2004 (original publication 1986). I saw those same Jutes floating out there long after they should’ve been forced into Britain, and exclaimed “No Way!”)

The game comes first in Britannia, but it’s also intended to be history, and this perpetual floating was not historical in any way shape or form. But in a space wargame you’re not constrained by history, so I can use what I call the free-form techniques that tend to ignore history, to make an interesting game. Players still have four nations - well, species - but the other players don’t know three of the four until they actually turn up! The point scoring depends on a “scoring center” that the player can move around as the game proceeds. Many of the historically based constraints have been removed. I can also keep the number of pieces down somewhat via a smaller board, so that at present no species can have more than 10 fleets. And to compensate for the smaller number of fleets I have each fleet roll two dice, and it takes two hits to destroy an enemy fleet.

Who knows how players will react to it, I think it is closer to the spirit of Risk insofar as there are fewer constraints, and that’s what people like in a certain kind of wargame as epitomized by Risk. We’ll see.

I love space wargames that I love designing space wargames, but I’m not sure there’s much of a commercial market for them. In the end I design games because I enjoy designing games, so I continue to pursue this one.

The second game that’s been played is a pure specialty card game, that is there are 110 cards and no other components. It’s meant to depict wizards sending out their minions to explore various areas and try to collect loot. The wizards cast spells to help out (or hinder their rivals) but they don’t get personally involved in the actual fighting.

I managed to get a prototype of this game done on the day of the first meeting of the semester of the NC State tabletop game club. It’s quite a simple game, so I decided to ask the players, some of whom have played my games for three or four years, if they were willing to play a game that I had not played before. They agreed, and it turned out to be one of the quickest playing games I have ever seen, not quick as in a short time to complete the game (though it can be), but a short time to complete your turn, so that in a 4  player game it seems like it’s your turn almost as soon as you finish your previous turn. I had not planned the game to be so quick playing, it just happened. A bonus of playing a “not played before” game is that the players offered lots of suggestions for new cards. I’ve added 16 new ones (and deleted 16 old ones) to see how it goes.

My next task is to get the third game together to play. It’s a 4X space wargame cut down to bare essentials.

***

My game Doomstar, in video form, is now listed on Steam and will be available in mid-September. http://store.steampowered.com/app/504750/   https://largevisiblemachine.itch.io/doomstar

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Experience versus Training in RPGs

Several years ago I was reading a column in PC gamer written by Desslock, who has been writing about computer RPGs for many years.  He likes skill-based development systems because players improve in the capabilities that they use rather than allocate experience points to whatever improvements they choose, perhaps being required to “train” in those new abilities.  To him it makes much more sense that you improve in the things you actually do than those you train for.

Bear with me a while here as I veer into teaching and then back to RPGs. I agree, though as a teacher I recognize that a good teacher can convey their experience to enable someone to avoid the lessons of the “school of hard knocks”.  I also recognize that it’s possible for someone to do something over and over but to do it poorly in a way that does not lead to improvement.  But as I read I realized that, in the United States at least, a great many people believe that training is the best way or the only way to know how to do something.  I remember one 18-year-old student telling me a few years ago that he and his classmates had been taught in high school that the only way to learn how to do something is to take class for it!  This was a student in a game design class; OTOH I certainly never had the opportunity to take any game design classes but I do pretty well at it and know quite a bit about it.

Yet I see this attitude that classes are the only way to learn, institutionalized in our schools and colleges.  The accreditation agencies that a accredit typical public and private colleges and universities in this country emphasize degrees as the major criterion of qualification for teachers.  It does not matter if you have been teaching the subject for 30 years: that is explicitly disregarded.  I was told about someone who had taught a subject for 32 years in a local high school and received a letter from the state telling him he was not qualified to teach it because he did not have a degree in that area.  (Yet at the same time, in the same state, a large proportion of K12 teachers have no qualifications including no teaching certificate.  These are lateral entry people who are allowed to teach up to three years before they need to get the teaching certificate.)

It does not matter, unless the school is willing to go through a lengthy portfolio process, that you (for example) worked in networking at a major medical center more than nine years before teaching networking classes.  If you don’t have a networking degree you are not qualified to teach networking, even though networking degrees did not exist until about 15 years ago and consequently anybody who went to school before that could not possibly have a networking degree.  (These are actual experiences, not theoretical.)  One college president told me that a person with a PhD in zoology was deemed by the accreditation people to be not qualified to teach freshman biology - zoology and botany are the two major divisions of biology - and as a result the school terminated the teacher!  If this had been anticipated, or the school had been willing to disagree and create a portfolio for the instructor, he almost certainly would have been deemed qualified.  But schools are very rarely willing to go to this trouble.

So we get a situation where, for example, the founder of creative writing as a curriculum in universities later said it should be done away with.  The major reason for this is that the people who have actually published novels and other kinds of creative writing that people pay money for, do not usually have Masters or PhD degrees in creative writing and so are “not qualified” to teach creative writing.  The people who are officially qualified to teach creative writing have gone through creative writing programs but may not have had anything published commercially.

What we tend to get in colleges and universities for teachers is people who have gone through undergraduate school and then graduate school and have a Masters or PhD in their subject, but have never actually practiced it in the real world.  For some subjects there is no way to practice it in the real world but others are very much practice based.

Given how this point of view has permeated schools, colleges, and universities, should we be surprised if role-playing games take the same sort of path?  I always thought one of the dumbest rules in early versions of D&D was the requirement that when you reached enough experience points to rising level you had to pay somebody an exorbitant sum to “train” you to be able act at the new level.  It was dumb from a gameplay point of view, because if applied as written it turned adventurers into money grubbers in order to  acquire enough money for training.  It was also dumb because if you have done the things that enabled you to survive and prosper then why would you need somebody to train you?  (And we can ask the chicken and egg question, where did the original trainer come from?  There must be a way to learn these things successfully without being trained.)

Computers are ideal for skill-based development because the computer can keep track of what you did and raise your capability as you go along.  This is much more difficult to track in tabletop RPG’s.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

What’s it Like to be a Game Designer?

(This was originally a response to a question on Quora.) 

Because there are so many kinds of game designers, the answer to the question is the same as the answer to many questions about game design: it depends.

The difference in experience between being a game designer who is working full time for a video game studio, someone who is an indie video game designer, and someone who is a freelance tabletop game designer such as myself, is immense. (There are a few full-time tabletop designers working for publishers, as well.)

For example, almost all of the time I can design whatever kind of game I want to design, and either I find someone to publish it, or I self publish it (which I personally do not do, but most tabletop designers do these days), or it doesn’t get published. Someone who is working as a game designer full-time may be lucky enough to work on a game they want to do, but much more likely will be working on a game that someone else decided is the one the studio needs to do. Indie video game designers tend to fall more into the freelance category in this respect, they’re on their own.

Video game designers tend to work on one game at a time, the one they’re trying to prepare to be published, while experienced tabletop designers tend to work on a lot of games in a given segment of time. The difference comes from how long it takes to get a game to a decent prototype. There is no programming or art or sound required for a tabletop game, so you can get to a good prototype relatively quickly, compared with a videogame. And from the good prototype to the final takes far longer for a video game than for a tabletop - the publisher takes care of production for the tabletop. That is, if the designer has licensed to a publisher, rather than self publishes.

Tabletop designers often spend a great deal more time involved in playtesting, than video game designers do. Much of that is because video games are designed to be played right out of the box, whereas someone has to read the rules of the tabletop game. And of course you can make as many copies as you want of a digital game at no cost, to send to playtesters. So it’s relatively easy for a video game studio to send their game out for “blind” playtesting (testing where the players have no knowledge of the development of the game). Tabletop designers spend much more time overseeing face-to-face playtesting of their games than they do actually designing them.

Video games can also go into “Early Access” or some other kind of pre-release and even post-release testing that is not possible for tabletop games.

Employment conditions in video game studios vary immensely. What Chris Crawford said 15 years ago is still true today, there are so many people who want jobs in the video game industry that the employers have supply and demand on their side; in that situation, employees are often treated poorly.

***

My game Doomstar, in video form, is now listed on Steam and will be available in mid-September. http://store.steampowered.com/app/504750/https://largevisiblemachine.itch.io/doomstar

The Beta is available in some inexpensive bundles (which I thought were piracy, but are not!).

Friday, August 19, 2016

My game Doomstar on Steam (beta release)

My game Doomstar, in video form, is now listed on Steam and will be available in mid-September. http://store.steampowered.com/app/504750/   https://largevisiblemachine.itch.io/doomstar

The Beta is available in some inexpensive bundles (which I thought were piracy, but are not!).

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Video (screencast): Don't Make Me Think!


 Following is the text of the slides.

Game Design: “Don’t Make Me Think”?
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
Pulsiphergames.com
“Game Design” channel on YouTube

Thanks to Steve Krug
There's a well-known book about website usability by Steve Krug titled "Don't Make Me Think“
He means, don’t make people have to think to find things on websites
Most games involve some thinking, but we can adopt this motto to mean, don't make players think about anything other than the gameplay of the game
Unfortunately, it can also mean, not thinking at all, and that attitude is becoming more common in hobby gaming
It’s always been the norm in party and family games

So we have three meanings
First is wholly desirable: don’t make people think about the interface and how they manipulate the game
Manipulating the game should be second nature
Second is “the way it is”, though I don’t like it: don’t make people have to think when they play a game 
This is already rampant in video games, with many being “athleticware” rather than “brainware”
Athleticism, physical skills, dominate in athleticware
Many F2P games have become reward-based rather than consequence-based
Third is what I first referred to, make people think only about gameplay

1) Don’t make me think about the Interface
The interface is how the player tells the game what he/she does, and the game tells the player what happens
Manipulating the game should be second nature from very early on, players should not need to struggle with the interface
Players of tabletop games shouldn't have to remember "every third turn" (and the computer should take care of that for video games)

Players shouldn’t have to do arithmetic unless it's necessary to good gameplay.  Players shouldn't have to remember odd aspects of victory conditions unless it's necessary to the game
This is why combat lookup tables are frowned upon nowadays, players have to think about something not usually necessary to gameplay
Innovation is often praised in games, but innovation in the interface is dangerous
Because familiarity, not newness, makes interfaces easier
“Intuitive,” when used in conjunction with UI, usually means “familiar”

2) Don’t make people think when they play a game 
Many people want to be entertained when they play a game, they don’t want to put in an effort
They are passive rather than active
It’s like watching a tentpole action movie such as “Avengers”
I really like Avengers, but games are different from movies, to me
But to many people, these days, they are not much different
They want to be given things, rewards, not to earn anything
This attitude used to be confined to party and family games, but is now common in hobby games

Less Thinking
There are lots of ways to do this:
Reduce the number of plausible choices for each decision
Reduce the number of decisions
Provide catch-up mechanisms such that people can mostly not pay attention for much of the game, and still have a chance to win
Make it obvious (“transparent”) how you need to play to win
Provide well-signposted “paths to victory”

Dexterity Games
Dexterity games – combining athleticware with brainware
You don’t have to think (or, not nearly as much)
Old codgers and naturally slow folk like me aren’t fans
I used to play Total Annihilation on dead slow in order to enjoy it
That turned it into a thinking game, not a reaction speed game
For example the British card game Snap (standard deck)
The failed collectible game Clout Fantasy involved dexterity
Pitch Car (racing), caroms, lots of other dexterity games
And of course, a great many video games

3) Don’t make me think about anything other than gameplay
Another way to put it: don’t put anything into the game that isn’t important to the strategies of play
A worthy goal, in my estimation
This is important to people who want to earn what they get from a game, rather than be rewarded for participation
This comes back to 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)

The other side: “I feel stupid”
The other side of this is whether the game makes the player feel stupid  (Jeffro)
That’s OK for “old-time” gamers, for chess players and the like
If they make a mistake, they recognize it and try to do better next time
It’s not OK for people who are waiting to be entertained.  They don’t want to feel uncomfortable
It’s the Age of Comfort, after all
People are brought up to avoid any kind of pain or discomfort – to their detriment
Of course, there are lots of gamers somewhere between these extremes
In general, the broader the appeal of your game, the less you can make people think.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Innovation is Highly Overrated in Game Design

This is a three-year-old screencast from my course "Learning Game Design, Part 1"

[I've since addressed this again in "The Futility of Striving for a Great Innovation" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=902jtgyYtwI
Sooner or later I'll finish one about Surprise in Games, because it's really surprise that players want, not innovation.]


Here is the text of the slides, though there is more in the presentation, of course:

How often is “innovation” fun?
The “cult of the new” is very strong in this century
But how does innovation contribute to enjoyment in a game?  Mainly by “surprise”
Yet something that’s not innovative to an “expert”, is to a novice

Most people play games to enjoy them, and innovation isn’t important to that
Think of all the video game sequels that sell so very well
Recent check of “most anticipated” game list in PC Gamer showed 12 out of 13 were sequels
One man’s innovation is another’s ho hum/old hat
Stratego example

Tim Sweeney (Epic Games founder) in Gamasutra Interview 2009:
“That's kind of a common pattern in everything I do. One minute I'm completely on my own and I think, "Wow, I'm a genius, I can't believe this idea nobody else had!" And then you look at the references on it, and it turns out that a hundred other people have done the same things in the 1980s. And then you look, and you get your additional ideas from those. Between invention and stealing, you come up with a really good combination of ideas.”

Combinations and Models
Good combinations may not be purely innovative, but are often brand new even though each element is not
Further, many games are models of some reality.  Then a good model is what makes a game good, not innovative mechanics or other elements
Make good combinations, make good models

Learning Game Design, Part I: https://www.udemy.com/draft/786564/?couponCode=1LGD39

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Triptych VII

Triptych VII
Three separate topics in one post

Game Design: Not much to Show about the Process

As you may know I make hundreds of screencasts about game design, many of them in courses at https://www.udemy.com/user/drlewispulsipher/ (discounts at pulsiphergames.com).  And I've written a book about game design as in my book http://www.amazon.com/Game-Design-Create-Tabletop-Finish/dp/0786469528/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1459717843&sr=8-1&keywords=lewis+pulsipher

But game design goes on in the mind. There is little to show. I can show someone making a map for a game, I can show people talking about game design, I can talk about game design, I can show you a game being playtested: but I cannot show you game design, because it's internal, not external.

I think many people don't quite understand that.

Yet recently I’ve been made aware of the gamedev threat on Twitch TV, live streaming. Most of the streaming shows someone playing video games, often watched by thousands. Gamedev shows game developers crunching their code while occasionally answering questions from the viewers. Still not much to show, but it works for several dozen viewers! Yet it’s about programming much more than about game design.

Chinese history in a (cyclical) nutshell: 
1. Anarchy reins, famine widespread, population plummets
2. Fairly stable "nations" (often called dynasties) established
3. Sooner or later, someone unites the land and becomes emperor (by Mandate of Heaven, of course); the land prospers
4. Population becomes too high for current agricultural technology, banditry erupts, anarchy reins, famine widespread, emperor/dynasty overthrown, population plummets - that is, back to 1.

Though it must be said, sometimes external invaders come into it, though usually the invaders succeed in bad times and fail in good times.  Sometimes one dynasty was immediately succeeded by another, sometimes a period of warring states intervenes.

Hiring an F2P Game Designer

How to hire [F2P] Game Designers [for a small studio], by Ilya Eremeyev.  http://gamasutra.com/blogs/IlyaEremeyev/20150720/248965/How_to_hire_Game_Designers.php

Detailed, some interesting points of view both in the kinds of designers, and in the crap he has to wade through.

I don’t know his company or even country, though the name is Slavic and English is not his first language.

Game designers are basically divided into 2 types: Game designers - storytellers and game designers-mathematics.

The first ones see their role in developing a “feeling”, writing a plot, quests, items descriptions and game universe backstory.

Second ones are all about balance design, economics, gameplay formulas and calculations.

In all conscience, most designers unite those skills but usually they focus on the one side more than on the other.

Usually, I hunt people with math\programming background and surely add this condition to our vacancy, which helps immediately cut off a half of unsuitable candidates and save some time.

After receiving “CVs”:
"First of all, I isolate infants, crazy dreamers, too juniors without any experience and strange guys who send me messages like ”Yo, wanna work in your company, I have a lot of ideas, but won’t share them with you, mail me dude” and instead of useful skills they point their love of anime and coffee."

[The noobs who haven’t figured out that game design does not equal ideas.]

[He gives them a seven- part test (questions but not answers included in the blog post) involving probability and knowledge of F2P games.]

"It is very important to catch a free-to-play haters, ideological pirates and peoples who stuck in the past. To understand how to make free-to-play games it is necessary to play and pay by yourself."

[As a college teacher, my colleagues and I were told by administration that we should not discuss a student (current or former) with any prospective employer unless we had only good things to say. Colleges nowadays are afraid of being sued.  This fear-of-litigation tends to reduce the value of references and recommendations. Here's the author's take:]

"Recommendations are a very useful tool in hiring, which unfortunately [are] often ignored. It is great if a candidate can provide a few contacts of his previous employers but if not I do not hesitate to contact them by myself and get a feedback about candidate’s performance."

Monday, June 13, 2016

Doomstar PC Conversion Beta Test Open

I had an unusual experience for a tabletop game designer at the UK game Expo. I watched an unpublished prototype that I had designed being played long after I had "finished" it. (And about 35 years after I started it.) This viewing in itself is not an unusual experience, because I sometimes leave a prototype for years and then come back to it. But in this case, I didn't watch just one play, I watched more than half a dozen. The game is a tactical space wargame that I call Doomstar, which is being converted to video. The idea is that the video version may help convince someone to publish the physical version. (Making money with a small video game is very much a matter of chance.)

(I'm happy to say that I couldn't find any fault with the game, either, and that's unusual for me. I usually have questions/doubts.)

The game is vaguely reminiscent of L'Attaque/Stratego, but immensely more fluid and less hierarchical, quite a different (and I think, better and much shorter) experience than Stratego.

If you want to sign up for the Doomstar PC beta, go to www.doomstargame.com/beta

Sunday, May 29, 2016

My Game Design Philosophy



While I haven’t consciously adopted a "philosophy" of design, these are my observations of what happens.

I design two kinds of games.  One kind is strategic, I hope with some gameplay depth, and highly interactive (like Britannia or Dragon Rage).  The other kind is "screwage" games (where you "mess with" the other players) that are not very strategic, but provide a fair bit of interaction within the game (though this varies)(like Sea Kings.).  I am no longer a big fan of two  player games, and even when I design something that is two player, I try to provide for partners play.

The strategic games tend to be 2-3 hours long, the screwage games under an hour.  Some of those games can be played quite quickly, but I don't design games that are intended to be less than half an hour, because such are bagatelles ("a thing regarded as too unimportant or easy to be worth much consideration".).

I prefer fairly simple-to-play games over fiddly, rules-complex, or many-pieces games.  I avoid any deliberately-added complexity.  My motto is "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 actually, is "Your garden is not complete until there is nothing else that you can remove."

I dislike puzzles, things that have always-correct solutions. Like most Eurogames (not all) and most single-player video games (not all).

I try to keep the number of pieces, cards, and other Stuff a player controls to under two dozen in multi-player (more than two players) games, and under three dozen in two-player games. Strategic and tactical complexity can be achieved without large numbers of elements to keep track of.

On the other hand, I am not of the "I only want a few alternative choices" school. In other words, a chess-like element is often in my games (lots of different possibilities, though few pieces).  I have simplified some of my games (generally the screwage card games) to the point that only a few practical moves need to be considered each turn.

Part of the "chess-like" method is that you must watch every move your opponent(s) make, and react to it. (Though the reaction can be to ignore  it, you have to figure that out, not ignore it to begin with.) If you don't "watch like a hawk", you are very likely to lose.

I try to reduce the effects of chance in strategic games, either with lots of die rolls that will tend to "even out" (Britannia) or by using elements such as cards that players have some control over. The more cards are used in a board game, the less dice should play a part.

I design games, not simulations. I prefer players to have control of their pieces; perhaps they can’t do everything that they want to (that’s good, it makes them make choices), but there is no random element that prevents them from doing something with their pieces, however realistic that may be. In the end, it’s a game. Hence, I have little interest in many of the more recent additions to wargames that model the huge uncertainty of warfare such as "chit pulls", activations, and "card driven".

I like the game to represent something, to be a model. In many Euro-style games, the atmosphere (often wrongly called theme in this case) is "tacked on" (and could be changed considerably), and the players are entirely concerned with pure mechanics and with the other players. I like to be able to understand that when I move something in the game, or do something in the game, it’s something like an event that could happen in reality. And when something happens in a game, it could have happened in reality. Having been educated in history, I am far more skeptical than most about relating real-world events to game events.

An historical game can teach the players something about history. I am not, however, of the "what if" school of varying one factor or one decision to "see what would have happened". My games tend to be at a high (strategic) level where it is practically impossible to "model" the factors that produced history, so it is rarely practical to use the "what if" query.

So I model effects, not causes.

Despite all that, I do design the occasional fairly abstract game, because abstract games are a form of "pure" game.  What I rarely do is design an abstract game but pretend it's something else.

People play games for many reasons. I play either (in cooperative games such as D&D) to "succeed in the mission" and keep everyone on my side "whole", or (in competitive games) to win the game. I like to know the rules of a game thoroughly; I much prefer to read a set of rules rather than have someone teach me, probably because I want to thoroughly know what’s going on. I recognize that the rules-reading preference, in particular, is a minority view! Nonetheless, I tend to design games that I like to play, though I design games for other people, not for myself.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

You MUST be Able to Say WHY Your Game Design is as it Is






(See Patreon note below)

You MUST be Able to Say WHY Your Game Design is as it Is
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
Pulsiphergames.com
“Game Design” channel on YouTube

Employment?
This is especially important if you’re trying to get a job as a game designer
But it’s also important in explaining a game to a potential publisher
(Probably not important for Kickstarter, given how that works)

If You Can’t . . .
If you cannot explain why an element is in the game, why it works as it does . . .
Shouldn’t you take that element out, or change how the game works?
Yes, this could be called an “engineering” point of view
But that’s how most employers and publishers are going to think about game designs
They can’t take on trust that your game is wonderful and they’ll see that sooner or later

Other “Methods?”
Unless the studio is in metric-cloud-cuckoo-land
Then they rely on metrics to determine how they put together their games
And in the extreme, may not hire any “game designers” at all
Metrics should be playtesting guides, not determiners of design
This is no better, no smarter, than those who throw things into a game, like throwing things against a wall, to see if they “stick”
With the metric “method” you get soul-less pandering to the micro-majorities
With “against the wall” you’re inefficient at best

Getting Hired?
If you apply to work in a video game studio, not only must you be able to show complete games;
You must be able to explain why they are designed as they are
Why? Game design is about critical thinking
Employers want to know that you are always thinking about WHY you do what you do
They don’t want to hire someone who cannot explain why
Especially if you’re working with a team

By the “Gut”?
Some designers depend heavily on their gut feelings
Maybe this works well for some; not for most
Unfortunately, “gut feelings” are hard to explain
The result: you might get poor results from employers and publishers, and even from programmers, artists, etc.
Why should they trust your gut feelings, after all?

Most every game involves both intellectual and emotional decisions. But most studios and publishers cannot rely on the inexplicable.

===
I have finally created a Patreon page to support my YouTube channel and blogging.  For those who don't know, Patreon is much like Kickstarter insofar as it enables individuals to support worthwhile projects. But unlike Kickstarter, this is continuing, monthly, support (at a level as low as $1 a month). Producing a video a week has interfered with my other activities (including text blogs), and may be one reason why it's taking me so long to get Britannia's new edition together. If I can attain a modicum of support via Patreon I can continue to justify the time I'm spending to produce free material. (I'd also like to get rid of the advertising on YouTube.)

https://www.patreon.com/LewisPulsipher
I will appreciate any support I receive - and there are a few perks involved, as well. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Consequences in Games

(Originally appeared in my "expert Blog" on Gamasutra.)

You may have heard me in the past talk about the widespread displacement of consequence-based gaming by reward-based gaming. Party games, and to a lesser extent family games, have always been reward-based (you're rewarded for participation) rather than consequence-based (winning and losing is important, plus more), but hobby games were usually the latter.  The change in hobby games started in the videogame world, where most single player games are puzzles rather than opposed games, and so as long as you are persistent - especially when you can use the video save games to try different things - sooner or later you'll solve the puzzle. 
Puzzles have always been with us, and truth to tell, puzzles are more popular than games with the population as a whole.
But the move to reward-basis is far stronger now. Subscription games (MMOs) and now Free to Play games have been the real turning points, because the player must constantly be enticed to stay in the game long enough to begin spending money in the various ways that games extract/entice money from players, other than purchasing the game. So players are constantly rewarded, and practically all the consequences of their actions are good for them. Some players go so far as to blame the game if the player does not succeed.
I have maintained that if there are no consequences to your actions, you don't have a game, you have a playground, a toy. And in a typical video game with its save game capability, how can there ever be any consequences to your actions, because you can always go back to your save game and try again?
Tabletop games have always had consequences when you were playing with other people, because you can't go back and try again, you have to accept what happens, and that often involves losing the game. I think we're starting to get away from that now in some tabletop games, which are more reward-based than consequence-based.

I was recently at the East Coast Game Conference in Raleigh North Carolina, where the keynote speaker was Warren Spector, designer of Deus Ex, Epic Mickey, and other games.
Most video games have right and wrong choices, with the right one(s) leading to the planned ending (or several endings). As Spector pointed out, they tend to be black and white, right and wrong. Warren Spector wants player choices in (video) games to have consequences, but does not want the choices to be right or wrong, black or white.  That's the difference between what he does, and a puzzle, where the right choice leads toward the always-correct solution. He wants to ask questions of the players and have the players grapple with possible answers, but he definitely doesn't want to answer those questions for the players. These questions are sometimes profound, as in what does it mean to be human (as opposed to a cyborg, robot, or alien). 
Moreover, Spector wants the choices players select to make a difference in the outcomes of the game. There are great many video games where you can make different choices but in the end the consequences are the same, including many branching games because the branches ultimately go back to a single node regardless of which choice you made.
Of course, *good* tabletop games always have consequences to the player choices. It's built into the form with human opposition. These are consequences not only in success and failure, but in the outcomes of the game. For example, even though some people believe that my historical game Britannia is a heavily scripted game, you don't see two games go exactly the same way. Each player choice makes a difference in the outcome, and there are millions of possible outcomes.
At one point Spector asked the audience if any of them had noticed that the big splash screen at the end of one of the Mickey games was created based on all the decisions the player had made throughout the game, so that there were thousands of different possibilities. Then he wistfully answered his own question by saying probably no one had noticed.
Someone beat me to it and asked how a game can have consequences when it has save-games. Spector said he has no answer (though he had obviously been asked many times before), and that it's most unlikely that many games will be sold without saves (other than Rogue-likes). He did say that with one of his games (I think Deus Ex but it could've been Epic Mickey) he expected players to take one or another of the choices presented to them and run with it. Instead players would try each possibility and save the result, and when they had tried everything then they took the result they liked the most and went on from there. This is the epitome of lack of consequence. Yet, he said the player has paid their money and they can do what they want with the game. (In free to play games, then, how do you address this form of activity?)
Spector mentioned that in another of his games he allowed players to switch at will from one line of choices to another (I cannot recall whether it was character class or something else).  And this had ruined the game, because it removed the consequences of so many choices.
In effect Spector was talking about an idealized form of a video game, rather than the form that's actually played by most game players these days, which is the save-and-try-again-until-you-like-it method. By and large I prefer the practical to the ideal in game design; fortunately, you can design a video game with Spector-style consequences, and that will work both for those who do the save-game tactics, and those who don't.

Consequences are a form of constraints, and contemporary players do not like constraints. They want to do whatever they want to do, as though they were on a playground or playing with toys. We've seen this occasionally for many decades, as it showed up early in Dungeons & Dragons. For example, character alignment was a form of constraint, and a great many players railed against alignment because it prevented them from doing whatever they wanted to do, from being what I call Chaotic Neutral Thugs, from behaving like they were in their own private playground, But now the attitude is much stronger, and there are many video games that pander to it in the name of retention (so that the player will spend money).
Games are inherently a bundle of constraints. But we can design on a spectrum from strong constraints (where there are consequences to player actions) to ones with weak constraints (players rewarded for participation).
Tabletop games used to have a tradition of open games, where you could play in whatever playstyle you wanted.  That's been undermined by puzzles, where you have to conform to the always-correct solution.  I call the puzzle-games, epitomized by very many Euro games, and most single-player videos, "closed games". Spector is recommending that developers make open games, not closed ones.
As do I. Unfortunately, closed games seem to be what the large majority of players want. And closed games are easier to design.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

A spectrum of approach to game design, in simplest terms

There are two fundamental ways to approach design of games (and of RPG adventures).

One approach is to set up an interesting situation and let the players cope with it as best they can,  "write their own story", and in this case each group of players is likely to write quite a different story from the same situation.

The other approach is to establish a linear course, a story, for the players to follow. The designer writes the story, not the players. Each play of the game/adventure follows roughly the same course.

And there's everything in between those extremes. But it's a spectrum from one extreme to the other. Most designers are some of one and some of the other.

Whether you call this "rules emergent vs progressive", or "open vs closed" or "sandbox vs linear" or "ludology vs narratolody", or something else, it amounts, in every case, to "how much does the creator want/try to control what the players do?"

I suspect many who haven't actually created games and adventures don't quite see how clear the choice is, in the end.

I am very much of the "let them write their own story" side.  For me, a designer gives players the tools to enjoy themselves, doesn't impose upon them. ("Are you a Game Designer or a Fiction Writer?"  http://youtu.be/Gl9EMszhYNo ) But many take the other extreme, or something close to it.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Why aren't computer RPGs (especially MMOs) as much FUN to play as old-time D&D?

Why aren't computer RPGs (especially MMOs) 
as much FUN to play as old-time D&D?
Lewis Pulsipher (Originally written Oct 2009)

[This was originally completed in October 2009, but for various reasons has not seen the light of publication. Generally it still applies, but occasionally I’ll interject some comments in brackets from the perspective of 2016.]


Oh, but they ARE as much fun, you say?  Yet I don't see much evidence of that.  For so many people it seems like a lot of work especially in MMOs - "the grind" - aimed at rising in level.  People don't enjoy the journey, they only enjoy the destination ("I'm 80th level!").  That's why there's a big market for sale of items and gold and even entire accounts for such games, the market addressed by "pharming".  (More details later.)

How did this happen?  We can observe that, in hard core video games in general, this "ennui" seems to be a problem (ennui: "a feeling of utter weariness and discontent resulting from satiety or lack of interest; boredom").  The journey isn't much fun.  People brag that "I beat the game," often throwing in an impressively-short duration of play, or that "I made maximum level", but they don't appear to have enjoyed it.  How many of the hard core say "did you enjoy playing?", instead they say "how long did it take you to beat the game?"  They want the result, not the experience.  It's as though a ten year old who wants to be wealthy when he's 60 would be happy to jump from 10 to wealthy 60 without experiencing the years in between.

Focus on “Leveling up” and lack of Group Play
Where games involve character levels, there are two possible reasons why this has happened.   I played First Edition AD&D for 30 years starting in 1975; my highest level character made 14th, but the last two levels were from magic items and he never actually played higher than 12th, which is just as well because the game doesn’t handle 14th level at all well.  Most of my many characters didn't make double figures of levels.  It took a LONG time, many long adventures involving several people, to "level up".  I recall one character that took ten adventures to reach second level.  So of course, I played the game not to level up, but to enjoy the adventure - as we all did.  (I can even remember discovering that a character had risen a level, but I hadn’t noticed because I’d not tallied the experience points from the past several adventures.  “Leveling up” was not the objective.)

I knew a former WoW pharmer who said he could reliably go from 1st to 30th level in 16 hours.  Nowadays in video games, it's quite easy to rise in level, and not surprisingly the objective of many players becomes rising in level rather than enjoying adventures.  How many players say "I really enjoyed that game;" instead they say, "I made 80th level".

Perhaps much of the reason for this change in objective, and consequent change in enjoyment, is the solitary nature of MMOs and computer RPGs (something that has ended for folks who join guilds and participate in big raids).  Face-to-face D&D is a social game, one that you enjoy with friends (or people who become your friends), one where much enjoyment is taken from the talk and activity between (and often during) the actual adventures, as well as from the adventures.  This is only now starting to become common in MMOs and online RPGs.  In times past, people playing alone didn't have other people to share their adventures with, to commiserate with, to recount old events.  Lacking that, what could they do?  Concentrate on "leveling up".

Too Much Like Work
But even in online games we find people doing more and more that seems like work.  Nick Yee, then of Stanford University, wrote a journal article called "The Labor of Fun: How Video Games Blur the Boundaries of Work and Play" published in 2006.  He used data from over 35,000 surveys completed by MMO players.  From the abstract:

Video games . . . transformation into work platforms and the staggering amount of work that is being done in these games often go unnoticed. Users spend on average 20 hours a week in online games, and many of them describe their game play as obligation, tedium, and more like a second job than entertainment. Using well-known behavior conditioning principles, video games are inherently work platforms that train us to become better game workers. And the work that is being performed in video games is increasingly similar to the work performed in business corporations.  (Google "Nick Yee Labor of Fun" for a PDF of the article.)

Some of this “work ethic” may be because players pay to play the game, so they feel obligated to play even if they don’t enjoy it.  But that’s a minor factor, as those who really don’t enjoy it will quit.

[Far fewer games are paid for these days, rather they’re free-to-play (F2P). Though many who play long enough to reach “max level” will still be spending money.]

Even when many people participate together, the experience of actually playing the game is rarely social.  Listen to accounts of the big raids in MMORPGs.  Every person is assigned a task (DPS ["damage per second"], healer, etc.); must do that task with precise timing; and does nothing else.  Each person's experience is uni-dimensional, a cog in a machine rather than an independent actor.  If a few people mess up their timing or role, the whole raid can fail.  Because of the time pressure, there's no opportunity to think, to use strategy, or to enjoy what's happening once the raid starts.

Does that sound like fun?  Contrast this with old D&D played at a leisurely pace, with lots of time to think and enjoy what's happening, where every character could act independently while keeping the good of the group as a whole in mind. [I suppose the key is the difference between “brainware”, using your brain to succeed in tabletop games, and “athleticware”, using your physical prowess to succeed in video games. There’s a lot more potential stress in athleticware.]

The "play" has become work to too many people.  I remember talking with someone who was a major officer in a fantasy MMO guild for many months.  He finally realized that it was work, that he wasn't enjoying it, that people treated him badly if he didn't do exactly what they wanted, or if the raids weren't successful.  So he quit.  There are similar examples in Yee's paper.

No Fear of Death
The other reason for the change in focus involves character death.  In First Edition AD&D you actually feared character death.  If you died,  it hurt your constitution or your experience points, or both; at worst, you were dead and gone.  In an MMO or standalone RPG, character death is generally something between a minor inconvenience and no trouble at all.  Think about it, if death is not to be feared, it matters much less what you do during your play, and you can pay less attention to it.  The details of play tend to blur because your full attention isn't required.  (Megaman 9 (for example) shows how even a minor fear of death changes a game immensely.  See http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=21324.)

The co-creator of D&D (Gary Gygax) put it this way in one of his last publications (Hall of Many Panes) “a good campaign must have an element of danger and real risk or else it is meaningless - death walks at the shoulder of all adventurers, and that is the true appeal of the game.”

"Pharming" highlights both sides of this problem.  If people enjoyed playing the games, would they buy characters and items from pharmers?  And if the games ordinarily required more than a dreary, predictable "grind", could pharmers produce enough such items for the demand? At the very least, the scale of pharming would be much smaller.

Obviously, a good human referee can provide more interesting adventures than a computer.  Moreover, in D&D the actions of a character can change the future, whereas in MMOs that’s rarely the case because they’re designed for thousands of players.  Once again, if what you do makes no difference, you’re less likely to pay attention to, and care about, what you do.

Similar Trends in Tabletop D&D
In tabletop Dungeons and Dragons itself we can see an evolution toward this same fixation on "leveling".  Second edition D&D is much like First;  Third Edition D&D (3.0) is a very different game, a kind of fantasy Squad Leader, with the emphasis on players finding ways to "minimax" the system via unearned advantages (such as myriad books and articles containing new feats, skills, and prestige classes).   Each character can be a one-man army, very different from First Edition where "combined arms" cooperation was absolutely necessary to survival.  In First Edition fighters cannot withstand the enemy without magic-users who deal massive damage to groups, and magic-users cannot survive if the enemy gets to melee range without protecting fighters.  Characters must help each other out, and each kind of character class provides an important component of "combined arms" success.  (Clerics provide defensive magic and medical help, rogues provide scouting and stealth, etc.)  It is rather like American football, with fighters as linemen, clerics as linebackers, rogues as wide receivers and secondary, and magic-users as quarterback and running backs.  Just as a football team will fail if some of its parts fail, the First Edition adventure party will fail if some of its members fail.

In Third Edition, every character type is designed to survive pretty well on its own.  Part of this evolution is attributable to the reduction in size of the typical adventuring group.  One of "Lew's laws" is "the survivability of an adventuring group varies with the square of the number of characters in it".  Our First Edition parties averaged seven or eight characters; Third Edition specifies four.  3.5 is essentially the same.  When there are only four characters, there's rarely a practical way to prevent the enemy from getting to the magic-user(s), who must then be able to cast spells in the face of melee opposition, who must be harder to kill, and so forth.  Fighters, with the proper feats, can kill several ordinary enemies in one blow.  And with "buffs" from the spell-casters, a fighter can take on a ridiculous number of monsters.

Further, you are supposed to rise a level in about 11 encounters, and could have several encounters in one adventure.  In other words, leveling can occur so often that leveling can become the objective, rather than focus on enjoying the adventure.  When I set out to convert some First Edition characters to Third, the first thing I did was double their level to be at a near-comparable place in progression.  The game was also designed to scale up to 20th level (and later 40th), whereas First Edition starts to break down when characters got well into double figure levels.

Fourth Edition D&D is for larger adventuring parties, and characters have many powers that only help other people in the party, not themselves.  It appears to be designed to encourage groups to work together.  Character "roles" have been added to emphasize cooperation and "combined arms".  Individual characters are very hard to kill, but don't have a lot of offensive capability.  Yet the general take on Fourth Edition is that it has been "WoW-ified", made to be more like World of Warcraft, with easy leveling and all the other things that have made WoW so widely popular.  Fourth Edition may be a good game, but it's not D&D.

[Fifth edition D&D is much like First, except that it’s much harder to get killed because of easy healing and spells such as Revivify at third level cleric.]

Is this “bad”?
Is it "bad" that people play for the destination rather than the journey?  In and of itself, no - every person has his own reasons for playing a game, and those reasons vary drastically.  These people can enjoy the game, even if they're not having fun.  Yet when the result is something that's more like work than play, you have to wonder what is wrong.  Yee quotes a registered nurse who played Everquest: "We spend hours - HOURS - every SINGLE day playing this damn game. My fingers wake me, aching, in the middle of the night. I have headaches from the countless hours I spend staring at the screen. I hate this game, but I can’t stop playing.  Quitting smoking was NEVER this hard."  Maybe there IS something wrong here.

Further, when games are designed to emphasize leveling up, those who want to "enjoy the journey" are left behind.  Is there anything game designers can do to help restore the fun?  We can’t quite put the creativity of human referees into computer games.  But already in some games, what a character does changes the world according to his view of it.  (What the players do very much affects EVE Online.)

We're in "the age of instant gratification".  Levels are easy to earn because video gamers expect to be rewarded at every turn.  30 years ago, experience points and the occasional magic item were sufficient reward; now expectations have been raised, and levels are the expected reward.  If a designer takes away those easy levels, will people play any more?  What a difficult situation!  I've designed many commercially published or forthcoming boardgames, but I've only once tried to design a role-playing game - though it was a board game, not a typical RPG - and now I wouldn't even contemplate it because of the problems I’ve described.

Games are entertainment, not Life
Younger readers might howl that video games are NOT easy.  Yet most long-time players recognize that, generally speaking, it's typically a lot easier to succeed at a video game than it was decades ago.  Death has no sting, games are automatically saved for you, heck, some games even aim your gun for you!  I'm not saying that easier is "bad", because it's what the market requires, so that people don't have to work for their entertainment; yet somehow, the entertainment has become too much like work for the hard core players, even when they're successful.

Fundamentally, then, it may be that these games aren't as fun as old D&D can be because they are designed to stroke the egos of pseudo-competitive people who think they've accomplished something important when they reach maximum level.  Good D&D players know better.  I remember a teenager who had an "18th level magic user", but had no clue how to play it well.  He may have made it up (rather like buying an account, but much cheaper!), or he may have played with a "Monty Haul" referee.  Your level didn't say anything about how well you played, and for that matter nobody outside your little group cared how well you played–you weren’t competing with the rest of the world.  We played to have fun, not to brag about our level or our loot (though we surely enjoyed such things when we attained them).

"Casual" players in general, and Nintendo among major publishers, haven't forgotten that games are entertainment.  You don't prove anything about your worth by being a "bad ass gamer", you don't help your family, your friends, your country, your world.   Commercial video games are not training for life, they're a pause from life if not an escape from life.  It just doesn't matter whether you "beat the game", or how quickly you beat the game, any more than it matters whether you complete a crossword puzzle or Rubik's Cube.  Casual players know that; some hard core players seem to have forgotten it, and those are often the people who "grind", who don't enjoy the journey, because they think "beating the game" is truly important even as the rest of us wonder where they got such an unrealistic, immature notion.