Thursday, July 26, 2012

Choosing a title for a game design book

My author copies of my book,  “Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish",  arrived today - it was printed a little early.    I don't know when it will reach pre-order folks.  You can click on the title of this post to go to the publisher's page for the book.

So it's a good time for the following:

As with game titles, book titles are determined by the publisher, not by the author.  All things marketing are the province of the publisher and the title is part of marketing.  So the author or designer can suggest titles but he or she does not have the final say.

Sometimes this works well.  My title for what the publisher called Britannia was "Invasions of Britain", Invasions for short.  That was perhaps a more descriptive title but does not have the "gravitas" of Britannia.  The title for Valley of the Four Winds was the title of the miniatures line that inspired the story that the game is based on.  Swords and Wizardry and Dragon Rage were my titles.  And so forth.

Some of you may regard this as an esoteric subject but others may be interested in the process, so I'm going to describe how we settled on a title for my game design book.

Many titles have been suggested for my game design book.  The first (and longer) book, which has not been published but which contributed a large amount of material to the one that has been published, was christened "Get It Done: Designing Games from Start to Finish" by the acquisitions editor at the company I originally submitted the book to.  (Their game design books were not selling well in stores, not surprising as their latest was over 1,000 pages, so the decided not to publish more books of that type.)   The title on the McFarland contract was "Designing Games from Start to Finish," but I wanted the term "Game Design" in the book title because that's how people in a library are going to search for the book, and McFarland's primary market is libraries. The title that I finally selected for the manuscript was "Learning Game Design", but there were lots of alternatives around game design and learning and how to, such as "How to Design Games".

When I received the acknowledgment of receipt of the manuscript the editor said they were looking for a more formal title, one more in keeping with their image as serious publishers.  "Introduction the Game Design" was a possibility.  It turned out that a book of that title had been published in February 2012, and when I wrote to point that out I found that the publishers had "just settled on a title we like and think will work well for your book. What do you think of 'Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish'?" 

At first I thought that was quite good, but after a couple hours I realized that "create" should be changed to "design".  The reason was that so many people confuse game production with game design, and "create" implies doing all the computer programming and art as well (that is, doing the entire production).  One of the reasons why we use tabletop games to begin teaching video game design is so that students quickly understand that computer programming is not part of game design.  Many video game schools say they teach "game design" but actually teach programming and art. I tried to find an alternative word to design but "plan" has the incorrect connotations, too, as it implies doing it all "up front", an error commonly seen in game design books.

Not surprisingly the publishers have a strong rule against using the same word twice in a title.

"Back to the drawing board." By this time I had another idea,  “Game Design: How to Devise the Essence of Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish”.  As I realized later, I was trying to find a different object for the verb in the subtitle because there was no verb other than "design" that could be used for the direct object of "game" without some confusion.  So the verb "devise" had an object of "essence."

The editors didn't feel that this was working because “how to devise the essence of” sounds like you’re thinking about it a lot but not actually doing anything about it.  And I didn't want to imply that game design was all about thinking.  It *is* critical thinking but it is also doing, the two have to go together. 

So I came up with the a more descriptive title:
"Game Design: How to Conceive and Incrementally Playtest and Modify the Mechanics and Heart of a Game until It Is Done."

I used "heart" instead of essence, to represent the non-mechanical aspects as opposed to the mechanics.   "Essence" would do about as well, I think.   "Incrementally playtest and modify" is the major part of the process.  "Until it is done" substitutes for "start to finish" or "from conception to completion".

I also had problems with "start to finish", because what I mean is that wannabe designers have to complete games, not just start them.  But it implies that the book is going to tell them "everything", and that isn't even close, the book doesn't even address marketing and licensing much, let along programming and art.  But once again, any phrase is going to be open to misinterpretation.

The next day, I realized that in trying to solve the fundamental problem of the direct object of "game" the alternative titles became much too long, and I decided to throw in the towel.  In the end there's no title that cannot be confused to mean that the designer is also doing the game production.  So the title that has been settled on is the one that they suggested,  "Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish".  If this confuses people then the book will disabuse them of their confusion that game design equals game production, and thus abusing people of incorrect notions is one of the purposes of the book.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Being a good listener

Many years ago as I was part of the questioning panel in on a job interview for a computer support position, a candidate was asked a typical question: what are the three most important characteristics for this job and how do you rate in those characteristics?  This first reply was “I’m a good listener”.

And while that’s a vital characteristic for computer support people because they need to listen to the people they’re supporting, it’s also true for video game designers.

When a video game is produced by a team rather than by an individual, virtually every member of that team wants to influence how the game works.  A great many of the people who work on video games would really like to make their own game but don’t have the opportunity, so the next best thing is to help shape the game that they’re paid to work on.

The person who most obviously must accommodate the desires of all these team members is the game designer.  They’re going to give their ideas and proposals to the designer.  And it’s the designer’s job to listen, and listen well, and when necessary explain to the team member why their idea may not be practical or simply why it won’t be tried.

Listening well is an art and a science.  Sometimes perceptions are involved, for example whenever there is “multitasking”.  My wife reads a lot these days, and frequently when I say something to her she keeps her eyes on her book or reader.  Is she really listening?  Usually she is up to a point because if I ask her to repeat what I said she can do so.  Though listening well is more than repeating the words, it’s understanding and processing them, and sometimes she doesn’t do that while she’s reading.

Yes, many of us may be able to do something on the computer and listen to someone at the same time, because according to recent research a person can multitask two things without much degradation, whereas more than two causes obvious degradation in the quality with which each task is done.  But if you’re looking at the computer screen (or at a book) and not the person you’re listening to the perception may be that you’re not listening.  The perception depends on the familiarity of the two people with one another and with how they do things.  But if you really want to appear to be a good listener you need to face the person you’re listening to and look at their face, if not directly into their eyes.  (If you’ve ever talked with someone who consistently avoids looking you in the eye then you know the doubts this can engender.)

Good listening is a skill that can be learned.  Search Amazon Books for “listening skills” and you’ll find lots of books about the art of listening.  But it’s not rocket science.  There are probably just two things - well, really three - that are required.  First you need to concentrate.   This is becoming a lost art in the 21st century but it really does make a difference.  “Multitasking” prevents you from concentrating.   Second, you need to care about what the person has to say, which generally means you need to respect them.  (If you’ve talked with people such as nurses and librarians who have to work regularly with physicians, one of their complaints is that the physicians don’t listen to them.  That’s because the physicians don’t sufficiently respect the other people.  Which usually turns out to be a mistake, of course.)  On the other hand, it’s easy to understand why a successful game designer might not listen very well to the typical fanboys or fan girls who come up and try to tell them the five things they needed to do to make their published game much better.

Yes, respect has to be earned, but when you start out on a game development team you have to assume that the other people have earned their places there.  And even if the game designer has learned that particular people have exceptionally useless ideas it is still “politic” to listen to them so that they’ll be happier and presumably do better work as a result.

The third thing is, the listener has to actually process what he’s hearing and take it into account in his behavior.  You can hear the words, and respect the speaker, and still not do anything about it.

Although tabletop game design is typically a solitary activity, in the playtesting stages the designer must listen to the playtesters.  We have all heard stories, both from games and from other endeavors such as software and hardware production, of people who didn’t listen to testers and produced what amounted to defective products.

What about focus groups?  While listening is a very important skill there are times when asking people certain kinds of things is not very useful. Some disciplines use focus groups a lot, but they don’t seem to be very useful in game production.  That’s because in a focus group you’re asking people what they would do rather than observing what they actually do, and in games you can observe what people actually do by having them try the game.  Jakob Nielsen, the guru of web usability, says that people often don’t do what they say they will do, not because they’re lying but because they just don’t know themselves very well or don’t take into account all the possible reactions - it’s like asking somebody which he would save if he could save only one of his wife and his daughter, whatever he *says*, he really doesn’t know what he’d do if the situation arises.  So asking people what they would do in a focus group about games is of very limited utility no matter how well you listen. 

The other thing that’s done in a focus group is to ask people for ideas, for how things should be done, and when you do that with people unless you have very specific questions it’s very difficult for them to come up with something more than “just the same only better”.

Monday, July 16, 2012

July 2012 Miscellany

Thoughts about some game-related topics that are not long enough for separate blog posts.

If you're into twitter, and game design, Reiner Knizia is worth following.  Many of his tweets are attempts to encapsulate his experience.

I see that GenCon now charges a base price of $2 per event--but not for seminars

"Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement; then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him out to the public."   Sir Winston Churchill

I quite agreed with him last October when I submitted the book.  But I agree even more after taking many, many hours to proof it and make the index.   One of the most tedious things I've ever done is manually create an index for a book.  I'll automate much of the process next time.

Due to be printed 28 July.

I've been reading the hoorah over Diablo III.  It can only be played via an Internet connection (to prevent cheating on virtual goods, so that Blizzard can make money through their auction house for virtual goods).  And Blizzard failed to adequately provide connections when the game was released.  So people sometimes couldn't play.

Intelligent consumers recognize the following:

1) Internet connections don't always work, so any game requiring such connection won't always work.

2) Anytime you buy a game just as it's released, the game is going to have lots of bugs, as with any other software.  You can hope there won't be big ones.  If you want to avoid bugs, wait a while before buying.

So, many people haven't encountered the problems, either because they won't buy an Internet DRM game, or because they'll wait until it's "fixed".

Simple enough.  But in the Age of Instant Gratification, "I want it now" sometimes replaces intelligence.

Britannia new edition is proceeding.  The FFG edition is officially out of print, though still available from many sources.

For Amazon's author pages, I cannot include Britannia (which is sold two ways through Amazon), even though it has an ISBN (international book number).  Only books are recognized, and only those books where you are principal author, not contributor.

At 8PM Thursday night at WBC - August 2 - I'll be talking about game design in Hopewell.  I did *not* choose the name for the event, by the way.

I decided too late to go to GenCon, speaking rooms were full.  As far as I can tell, I tried to get something on Sunday morning but I don't know the result.

Frugal Dad ( lists 33 boardgame blogs, a useful list.  (They call them "top board game sites" but don't include BGG--though they include Purple Pawn which is not a blog.  *Shrug*)

Contrary to rumor, GenCon is not moving to a different time-frame, though sometimes mid-August as this year, sometimes early August.

Tim Sweeney (founder of Epic Games) on focus groups: "Well, there are really two ways to get feedback from customers. One is to ask them what they want, and you never really get a useful answer from there. They'll tell you they want the current thing they have plus some fixes to it that are fairly obvious. What is really useful is building the game you want to build and building it the way you want to build it, then sitting down a bunch of people in front of it. Then watching them play, seeing where they get stuck, what they think of it and just getting their feedback that way. Customer feedback is extraordinarily useful in fine tuning something that exists. So if you use it to that extent, it's a very healthy and important part of a development cycle.

Too many companies will go and say 'So, we're considering building a phone. What do you want in a phone?' So they are like 'Gee, I want this iPhone problem to go away.' You don't get the wide, forward looking perspective that industry visionaries like Cliff himself can come up with."

"Social network" games are designed to be easily playable by people who would struggle to understand and play most any hobby tabletop game (e.g. Settlers of Catan).  Monopoly and Sorry are OK, but anything more demanding, good luck.  In other words, social network games are mass market games.  Surprise.

The most difficult thing to test, in playtesting, is the longevity of a game, how it holds up over many, many plays.  That's because most game players aren't interested in playing the same game again and again, except perhaps over many years, or unless the game is very short.  Playtesting a game for years is often impractical.

Rabid video game  fans are rarely sports fans.  Two often-exclusive ways of killing time?  Though sports has a lot more persistence (then again, so do MMOs).

Jakob Nielsen  says "killing time is the killer app" for mobile.  You don't need "an experience" to kill time.  Convenience is a big part of killing time.  This is why phones will predominate and dedicated handhelds will become a much smaller market.  Those who want "an experience" will use something more capable and much larger (especially in the screen) than a handheld.

 I understand that Diablo III has abandoned choice-based skill trees in favor of the ability to choose any six of the skills available to you, at any time, changing as you wish.

From the competitive game aspect, this reduces the depth of the game because there are no long-term choices that matter.  It also sounds quite homogeneous, rather the opposite of the trend to customizing characters/avatars so that each one is different.   But looked at another way, it allows near-infinite customization because you can change whenever you like.

From an entertainment aspect, it lets players avoid big mistakes, and gives them an enormous field to experiment in.  Diablo is not intended to be a deep game, it seems to be more the ultimate hack and slash, so an orientation to entertainment makes sense.

"Diablo III is built for people who want to tinker rather than people who want to just cop out and decide. Tinkering can be every bit as effective a hook as deciding."  Tom Chick

Yes, it's very much trial-and-error (guess and check), which is the "new way" to do things.  But there's lots of variety in trial and error . . .

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Commercially viable game designs versus personally satisfying designs

I go to a college game club during the academic year.  Recently a couple of the college students have designed their own games and brought them to playtest at the club.  One of these is the past president, now a graduate student, who’s been working on games for several years and so it wasn’t surprising.  His game that’s a combination of deck building and lots of dice rolling is quite popular.  The other is more of a surprise, a 19-year-old woman who had not seemed very serious about games, who’s full of life and enthusiasm about all kinds of things, yet who buckled down and designed games.

The first game she brought in was pretty typical of a first game when somebody is starting to design.  She had not actually played it herself before bringing it in, which is always a big mistake.  It used roll and move mechanics (yuck) and had sufficient problems that the members of the club were able to dissect it and show that it was both highly random and virtually unplayable, before anyone had actually played it for long.

She took the lesson to heart about playing solo first, and the next game she brought in worked pretty well and has now been played a lot at the club.  She’s put a lot of effort into making the cards, with lots of individual (often amusing) art.  When people are designing games for the first time the games are often derivative of others, and I don’t know whether she realizes it but her game is derivative of some of my games that I’ve brought in that are often played by the members of the club.  These games are “screwage” games using cards and occasionally other bits such as dice or character markers.  (Sometimes these are called “beer and pretzel games”.)  Her game also appeared to be of this type, using cards alone. 

In screwage games such as Bang! there is not a lot of strategy and the major activity is messing with the other players, who we hope are your friends.  They tend to be fairly short and easily played by widely varying numbers of players.  While Bang!  has player elimination my games do not.  Screwage games have themes like the Wild West, the zombie apocalypse, pirates, kung fu, ninjas, and so forth.

So a screwage game with her theme, sheep herding, is quite different.  I won’t repeat the title because it’s clever but at the same time a title that probably cannot be used for a commercial product for copyright reasons.  The one surprise about her game, to me, was that sheep dogs didn't have much to do with it!  It's especially surprising because she really likes dogs. 

While her game appeared to be a screwage game, once I played it (a great rarity, me actually playing someone else’s game), it became apparent that it’s a “take that” game rather than a screwage game.  The difference is how strongly one card can affect the game situation.  “Take that” cards change the game drastically (which, of course, makes it feel more random as well). 

While I had very little to do with it, I was proud of her for putting so much effort into her game, and occasionally I’d try to advise her about the commercial prospects of it.  I particularly tried to find ways to reduce the “take that” nature of the game.   But I realized finally that she isn’t interested in commercial publication, she just wants a game that she can play with friends, and sell to like-minded people at a category of (non-game) conventions that she attends.  (Our past president, on the other hand, is definitely interested in commercial publication, and is making the nearly 700 mile trek to GenCon this summer to learn more.)

If you just want a game that satisfies you, and that you can get people to play to your satisfaction, then you're in fine shape.  Unfortunately, a game that's personally satisfying isn't necessarily commercially viable. 

And it gets worse: a game that plays very well for its intended audience, might not be one that can easily be marketed.  Two different things.  That's why some games that are essentially abstract, nonetheless have tacked-on atmospheres, so that the atmosphere can help sell the game even though it has nothing to do with how the game is played.

Fortunately, people who want "personally satisfying" games can still produce a good physical product through POD (print on demand).  The most well-known of these that cater to individuals rather than small companies is, who have been doing this for more than three years.  If you can produce the necessary PDFs, they can make your game available, with no costs up front to you.  Naturally it's more expensive than mass production, but it's a viable alternative.  Have a look at the Web site, where they have a calculator that shows how much it will cost to produce your game.

And next month when the club starts to meet again we'll find out whether the sheep herding game has gone that route.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Six words about chance/randomness in games

According to tweetdeck, one of the trending:worldwide topics on twitter not so long ago was six word stories.  In the past several months I've asked people to say six words about game design, programming, wargames, stories in games, casual games, innovation (and plagiarism) in games, and zombie games.

This time the challenge is this: say six (interesting or amusing) words about chance/randomness in games.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Game Rules are a Pain in the "Watukas"

Here is an example of how a simple misunderstanding in the rules can break a game.

My 1982 game Dragon Rage was reissued at the beginning of 2011.  The process of finding a publisher, who was a new publisher, and getting the game arranged and printed took about three years.  The publisher, Eric Hanuise of Flatlined Games, felt he should rewrite the rules in a more modern style, more sequence of play than the old rules which were written in a reference style as most were in the early 1980s.

At one point he told me that the dragons seemed to be losing an awful lot of games in his playtesting with the newly written rules and asked me if I could figure it out.  So I took his preliminary art and mounted the board and pieces on foam board and painstakingly cut the pieces out.  Then I took it up to my brother's house (more than 300 miles-- but he had experience of having played the original version).  I sat in his living room with my originally submitted rules, the originally published rules, and Eric's version of the rules and tried to make comparisons.

Fortunately it didn't take long before I got an idea of what had happened.  Corresponding with Eric confirmed it.  In Dragon Rage the defenders get reinforcements by ship after the game has been going for a while and at regular intervals thereafter.  The design purpose was to force the dragons to have a go rather than hang back and fool around.  If the dragons simply charge in and blunder about, they'll likely be killed.  So the dragons have to pick and choose their times and places to act, sometimes nipping in and out, and the reinforcements help induce them to actually attack rather than fool about.  In other words, the reinforcements provide the momentum toward a conclusion, something every game must have, as what starts out with a slight advantage to the dragons gradually becomes an advantage to the defenders.

The timing is determined by turns.  And Eric had counted turns differently than we did in the old days (and, I suspect still do in wargaming).  In the old days, play by one player and then the other constituted a single turn.  Eric counted this as *two* turns.  So the reinforcements started coming after five turns rather than 10 turns, and thereafter came twice as fast (every two turns instead of four).  Keep in mind that Eric's native language is the Belgian version of French, not English, so this misunderstanding is not surprising.  But it made a huge difference in how the game played.

This illustrates why the designer ought to be involved in the production of the game.  Often, once the designer submits the game, he has virtually no input in production.

While we're on the topic of Dragon Rage, it is notable because the maps, which have a lot of detail on the two-sided mapboard, were not drawn by a professional artist.  Campaign Cartographer 3 by ProFantasy is a fantasy map-making program built on top of the FastCad computer aided design program.  It is powerful enough that Eric Hanuise of Flatlined Games was able to use it and CityDesigner3 for the maps, thus trading his time to learn the program in order to save very substantial artist fees (no licensing fee from ProFantasy required). See for a brief description with the final maps.  The step-by-step process is described at (scroll down to September 12, 2011).

Sunday, July 01, 2012

"Don't Make Me Think" (about the interface)

A major objective of any game designer should be to avoid inflicting unnecessary frustration on the player(s).  In video games in particular it’s easy to find reviews that criticize the user interface for being difficult or fiddly or confusing.

Sometimes we can find good advice in disciplines that are not part of the game industry.  One of these is the Website design industry.  The World Wide Web is particularly susceptible to some of the kinds of problems that can bedevil video game interfaces.  Web users tend to spend very little time on a particular page and are unwilling to expend effort to find information or to read the information they find.  Typical advice is to write half as much as you normally would and to use bullet points rather than narrative, because that’s the way most Web users read things.

And Web users as a group tend to be technologically inept.  They are poor at searching, frequently giving up if their first search doesn’t work, and rarely going to the second page of search results. ( .) In one test Jakob Nielsen found that “only 76% of users who expressed a desire to run a Google search were successful. In other words, 1/4 of users who wanted to use Google couldn't do so. (Instead, they either completely failed to get to any search engine or ended up running their query on a different search engine — usually whatever type-in field happened to be at hand.) “  ( ).  For most anyone reading this, this would be very easy, but we’re not a group representative of Web users as a whole.

This is the caliber of people who are playing social networking games on Facebook.  Facebook is a great blessing to the video game industry because it enables technologically inept people to play video games.  Just as many people struggle to do a specific search at a specific search engine, many people struggle to do much of anything on the Web, but many have learned to use Facebook.  Apparently for many people Facebook IS the Web, as far as they’re concerned, and they rarely do anything on the Web outside of Facebook.

Nielsen is the guru of Web usability, and his Website ( has provided biweekly articles about usability for many years.  I think that anyone who designs video games should read many of these articles, nor will it hurt people who design tabletop games even though problems with the user interface are less common on the tabletop.

I’ve seen people who claim to know a lot about Web design praise Websites that are hard to figure out but pretty.  Pretty may be important for certain audiences, up to a point, but not for many purposes and rarely for serious purposes.  The same can be said for game interfaces. There are also lots of Web designers who don’t test their sites, and that works about as well as game designers who don’t test their games – wretchedly.  Nielsen’s objective is to serve his market of people doing business on the Web, where a site that’s difficult to use can literally cost millions of dollars of business.  His major thrust for Web usability is that you have to test your sites regularly with the intended audience while developing them, and he devotes many of his articles to discussing how he tests and also discussing his test results in terms of preferences for different age groups.  As with the games one of the most important things is to understand who your audience is.

Nielsen has written more or less scholarly books about Web usability, but I first recommend a small book by Steve Krug titled “Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability”.  Of course Krug doesn’t mean no thinking at all from the user, he means don’t make people think about how they’re acquiring their information, don’t make them make decisions that could interfere with finding and consuming the information they’re looking for.  Once they find what they’re looking for, if they want to think about that, fine. (Warning: the book predates “Web 2.0", so the examples are seen as dated, by some.  But much of the point of “don’t make me think” is “don’t fool around with extraneous displays of cuteness”, a common failing of contemporary Web sites.)  I’ve not read his more recent book about testing, “Rocket Surgery Made Easy: The Do-It-Yourself Guide to Finding and Fixing Usability Problems”.  A look at Nielsen’s own Web site, which is very utilitarian but very easy to use, is instructive in itself.  Krug’s site ( is not quite as utilitarian, but still simple and straightforward.  (Keep the audience in mind, in both cases.)

Let me interject here, I don’t use the word “intuitive” because it has become meaningless, a sloppy replacement for the word “easy”.  If anything is intuitive on computers it’s because people are familiar with the task from other software.  There is nothing particularly natural about how humans work with computers.  The natural way would be that we would talk to the computer as though it were a human and it would understand, but we’re not there yet.  Another natural method is that we would think at the computer and it would know what we wanted to do, and that’s even further away.

When you think about it, games should be as easy to use as the Web needs to be.  The player should not have to think about anything except the actual decisions and challenges of the game.  They shouldn’t have to think about how to make their avatar move, they shouldn’t have to think about how to shoot, they shouldn’t have to think about keeping track of information such as the turn number.  The game should make this so easy that they don’t need to think about it.

“Don’t make me think” isn’t quite the same as K.I.S.S. - “Keep It Simple, Simon” - as you can have a complex game that nevertheless doesn’t make the user think about how to manipulate it and tell it what to do (e.g. chess).  K.I.S.S is akin to my favorite maxim about game design, "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)

Some games that require a lot of thought for success, chess-like games or “strategy games”, may require more thought in areas other than the actual gameplay because the game itself is more complex.  Yet chess itself is an example of a complex strategy game with a very simple interface.