Thursday, December 20, 2012

Six words about a Christmas present for the game industry?

According to tweetdeck, one of the trending:worldwide topics on twitter not so long ago was 6 word stories.  In the past few months I've asked people to say 6 words about game design, programming, wargames, stories in games, casual games, zombie games, chance/randomness in games, innovation and plagiarism in games, game sequels, and role-playing games.

This time the challenge is to say something about: "If I could give any present to the game industry this Christmas".

By the way, if you think of yourself as a game designer and have five minutes to spare, and have not done it yet, please respond to this short game design survey:

Monday, December 17, 2012

Game Designer Survey 2012

Pulsipher's Game Designer Survey 2012

This is a short (five minutes, 10 questions) survey for people who call themselves game designers, video or tabletop (which is as good a way to define who game designers are as any other).

Keep in mind we are talking about game design, not about programming, art, sound, or other parts of game production.

I am using the free SurveyMonkey application, which is limited in the number of respondents, but I'll monitor it and refresh if I near the limit of 100.  If you happen to try just as I am refreshing it, it will be temporarily closed.

This announcement will be rolled out gradually, over the course of several days, so you may end up seeing it in more than one place.  The survey will remain open well into January.

I will post results next year, likely in February.

Survey link:


Sunday, December 09, 2012

December 2012 Miscellany

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


I said in my book Game Design that I thought video and tabletop games are converging, but sometimes I'm not so sure when I look at games like Farmville on one hand, and worse, the all-rewards-all-the-time games like Diablo III and many others, where anything that interferes with getting direct pleasure is regarded as a "fail".

It's important to most western gamers that games are "fair".  But I think the definition of fair has changed for many video gamers.  Where it used to imply that you got what you deserved, that you had to earn something, now it means "fair" in the way my young niece used to use it.  She'd say "that's not fair", but she meant, "that's not what I want, I'm not getting what I want".  Now video game players expect a game to give them what they want, when they want it, period.

While that's not necessarily bad, it's not what I'd call a game.

The deadline for submission of nominations for the 2012 Origins Awards was a month and a half before the end of 2012 . . . Say What?

Book Review – Game Design Posted on December 3, 2012 by Joe Huber on Opinionated Gamer

In the video game industry I see "freemium" used two ways.  One is as a synonym for "free to play".   The other is to indicate a game with versions, one that is free to play, and a bigger/better version that requires retail sale of some kind, whether through an app store or direct.  I like the more specific use, as we then have two separate things, "free to play" and "freemium", instead of one with two exactly-equivalent designators that can have two different forms.  But given the speed with which word meaning is degrading these days, I think the latter will win out.

Even people who read books, often don't want to read LONG books.

Which brings to mind that people who like movies, often don't like LONG movies.  I do.  Depends on what you're used to, I remember 4 hour movies with intermissions, "never happens" now.


In games, the more important the destination is compared to the journey, the more likely people are to cheat.

Have we had the era of the book, then the era of radio and TV, then the continuing era of the Internet, and now the era of videos (and podcasts) rather than the written word?

I recall my wife's experience years ago at Methodist College library (she was the Director).  Students didn't want to look in the reference books when she pointed out where they could find what they needed; they wanted it on computer - if it wasn't on computer, it didn't count.

In video games, makers have learned that most players don't read text of significant length even though that text might help them play better (and might be a good story as well).  Increasingly in video games, players want to hear, not read.


Lesson about writing things down:  Someone suggested a much better alternative title for something I called the  "Pathetic" rule (if you have no Victory Points cards at all, which is fairly rare, then when someone plays a scoring card you get one point, because you're so pathetic. . .).  But I can't remember what it was, and I can't find where I wrote it down - if I did.  Curses!

Classic "waste of air" phrase that I see far too often:  "maybe we can get it to the table tonight".  Why not say "maybe we can play" the game tonight?  Fewer words, more straightforward, cleaner.  And no hint of jargon.

If the name of the game tells you absolutely nothing about what it might be about - think all those games named after cities, for example - then it's probably not a game with a theme, nor even an atmosphere to speak of.  (Themes influence how the game is designed and how it plays; atmospheres don't.)


People have become more focused on consumption rather than production as the center of their lives.  (Some would call this another triumph of capitalism.)

And they expect perfection in their consumption, even though they are far from perfect and especially nowhere near perfect when they try to produce something.  More "not taking responsibility".

I've just read a "debate" in the January 2013 issue of PC Gamer magazine titled "Should gaming technology stop advancing".  "If we pause the advance of technology, we get to spend that effort advancing the actual games.  Everyone wins!"

I remember years ago when "Robert X Cringely" in InfoWorld advocated the same thing for all of computerdom, that of technology no longer advanced people could focus on making better software and making better use of the existing computer possibilities.  But this was before the broadband use of the World Wide Web, so we now have a possibility of "online" activity that did not exist at that time, along with the connectivity of smartphones.

Of course this suspension is impossible.  But we've already seen something like this in the console world.  When a new generation of consoles comes out, in effect technology stops until the next generation comes out.  What's the result?  Right now, at the end of a very long console cycle, a great many people lament that we haven't reached the new generation, and some blame poor console software sales on the lack of a new generation.

On the other hand we have great advances in PCs and in mobile gaming, so technology has not stopped entirely but only in the console world (and even there we have Kinect and Move).  Consequently I don't think we can draw conclusions even though there's an indication that stopping technology is not the best idea.  One of the things I like about PC technology is that it is always advancing.

"Art" originates in entertainment.  Da Vinci painted "Mona Lisa" to entertain someone.  Bach and Mozart wrote music to make a living by entertaining people (or by satisfying religious worship needs, in Bach's case, and we may argue indefinitely whether that is also entertainment).  Both, toward the end of their lives, wrote a few things without money in mind, perhaps as "art", or perhaps simply because they felt they had to.

Some of the entertainment people create can have a profound effect on some people.  At which point it has become art, if it wasn't already.  Some art may have a profound effect on the world as a whole (Ian Bogost: "Art is about changing the world; entertainment is about leisure.").  At which point it becomes Art with the capital "A".

Games originated as entertainment, sometimes the entertainment affects someone profoundly.  Has any game had a profound effect on the world, changed it significantly?  You decide - the players don't care.

"In general, in all publishing businesses, it's the middle man who's under pressure, it's not the talent."  Bing Gordon
Recent blogs (not all are posted on other blogs (e.g., ones heavily video-game-related aren't posted on BGDF and F:AT)).  Here's a list with links:

How Novice Game Designers can Be Taken Seriously by Publishers and Funders (cautionary advice)
The virtues (and sins) of using dice in game designs
Modifying chess conflict rules
Looking at game design as ways of introducing asymmetry
How many dice (to include with a game)?
Two Problems for Historical Game Designers: Barbarian "Push" and Tribute
Six words about role-playing games
The economic production cycle in games
November 2012 Miscellany

Monday, December 03, 2012

The virtues (and sins) of using dice in game designs

In the very oldest traditional board and card games, dice are rarely used.  (Backgammon and Parcheesi are the most notable exceptions.)  Most of those boardgames have perfect information and the only uncertainty comes from the intentions of the other player, except where dice are used.  There are always just two players.  Think of checkers, go, chess, tic-tac-toe, Nine Men's Morris, mancala, and so forth. 

Dice were used primarily for dice games.  Cards were not really invented for game purposes ion the West until post-Medieval times, and cards provide so much uncertainty on their own by hiding information that there evidently wasn't much impetus to add dice to card games.  Race and chase games combine dice with boards, but most of these don't have the ancient pedigree of the games I mentioned above.

With the advent of what I call traditional commercial games such as Monopoly, Sorry, the execrable Game of Life, Risk, and others much older, dice became a typical component of boardgames, to the extent that video game design students who are not familiar with today's hobby boardgames simply assume that a non-abstract boardgame must include dice.

When I first give game design students some materials to make games with I do not give them dice, but they often request it and then I give them whatever kinds of dice they need, whether d6s or something more offbeat.

Yet there was a time some years ago when many people playing Eurostyle games declared a great unhappiness with dice.  They simply did not want to deal with them, perhaps because dice reminded them of non-intellectual American family games.  And as someone who in early adulthood said "I hate dice games" I can sympathize with that.  Yet there's a place for dice in games, depending on the target market and many other factors, and that's what I want to talk about, more the virtues of dice than the sins though I'll also mention the sins.

Obviously, dice are a randomizer.  Spinners are an alternative, as is a deck of cards numbered from 1 to 6.  (Note that an unshuffled deck of cards is not entirely random if players can memorize what numbers have already come out of the deck.)  Unlike dice, spinners can have a great variety of weights to different choices, whereas with dice each number ought to come up with the same frequency.  We can use dice with more or less than six sides, and combinations of results (such as, if you roll a 5 or a 6 something happens).  It's also easy to roll several dice at once whether you add the results or not. Using the sum of two dice is common, giving probabilities from 1 to 6 out of 36.  It's also possible to use pictures on the dice instead of numerals, and of course you can do the same thing with cards and spinners.

Randomization serves many purposes, and many things in life are random.  If you're one of those people who says "everything happens for a reason" you might disagree.

An extreme example of randomization is the people who roll dice to decide what choice they're going to make within a game; this is especially popular amongst RPGers.

Replayability and Variety
I have a few multisided game prototypes where I have tried both deterministic combat methods and methods involving dice.  In some games the deterministic method seems to be acceptable and in others a dice method seems to work better.  This may be related to the "natural variety" of the game: a game with more natural variety can have a deterministic combat method, while a game with less natural variety needs the variety from the dice.

Now what do I mean by "natural variety", which is a term I made up just this minute?  Imagine chess played on a board 16 squares wide instead of eight and with twice as many pieces on the side.  This has more natural variety than standard chess because there are more places for pieces to be and more pieces to move.  Then imagine chess with a 5 by 5 square board, or even 4 by 4, and proportional reduction in pieces.  That has less natural variety.

To compare my two prototypes, in a game with only 30 locations and one type of unit (armies) there is much less natural variety than in a game with 45 locations, technological advances, and event cards, even though it too has only one type of unit.  The latter game uses deterministic combat while the former game works better with a form of dice combat that is fairly predictable and has a small standard deviation.

Excitement and Surprise
"Decks are fair, dice are exciting."  (Sean Givan)

Dice provide moments of excitement that rarely come from cards, even more rarely from any other kind of activity.  If you are at a convention or other well-attended game meeting, and hear a big cheer from a table, it probably involves a dice roll.  Many kinds of games are meant to be intellectual (chess again) rather than exciting, but the exciting ones frequently involve dice.  (Is there a connection to a fascination with gambling?  I don't know.  As I said, I used to say "I hate dice", and I have absolutely no fascination with gambling, which to me is a sort of tax on people who cannot do math.)

Dice also inject surprise into games, especially those that are otherwise perfect information.  And if you think about it, surprise is one of the main reasons why people play games.  It's really difficult to create new ways to surprise, but dice help do so, at least until people get used to the possibilities and probabilities in the game.

"Chance is skill when you win. (Skill is chance when you lose)."  (Jonathon Walsh)

Dice contribute to replayability not only because randomization creates a greater variety of situations.  Rolling dice means you're not putting your evaluation of your self into the game as much, not risking your ego.  How many times have you heard people blame the dice for their loss in a game?  Some people even profess to be convinced that they have consistently bad dice luck, which is of course ridiculous.  Though it's certainly possible to have bad luck in a single game, as I remember one 2-player Risk game where I rolled one "6" during the entire game.  Simply put, diceless games make you take more responsibility for the result than games with dice do.  And people who feel they're responsible for a loss may be less likely to try again.  Put it another way, if a player can convince himself that dice were his downfall, he's more likely to say "let's try that again."

One reason why people dislike dice is that randomization dilutes the "purity of the puzzle." Many modern games, both board and video, are essentially puzzles because they can be solved - played in a way that is always successful.  When you introduce random factors then no solution will always work because luck won't always go your way.  The "speed runs" that are popular in video games, where someone shows how fast he or she can go all the way through a video game that they've played before, often with astonishingly quick times, are much less possible if there is much randomization in the game.  The speed running player cannot depend entirely on everything working exactly the way he's familiar with.

Having said that, hobby boardgame players are often much happier with cards as a randomizer than with dice.  That may be because they feel they can manage a hand of cards whereas they can't manage dice rolls, or don't feel they can.

Using knowledge of probability to manage dice rolls is something I would expect hobby game players to be able to do, but I suspect relatively few can.  For example, in Settlers of Catan two dice are rolled to determine which hexes produce raw materials.  Experienced game players generally know the chances of rolling particular numbers and know that a "7" is six times as likely to be rolled as a "2".  Yet the American edition of Settlers of Catan includes a table that shows those chances, so my suspicion is that a lot of people playing Catan don't know those dice odds. 

In other words it's easier for some people to manage the cards they can see clearly in their hand than it is to manage probabilities that they can only see in your head - if they can work them out.

Then a "sin" of dice is that you need to understand probability to fully manage dice.

Another "sin" of dice is that they have the smell or odor of gambling, and gambling is very unattractive to a lot of people, though very attractive to many others.  So much so that some religions ban dice games.

A minor sin of dice is that rambunctious (or merely clumsy) players sometimes disarray the game board while rolling dice all over the place!

But the biggest sin of dice, in the minds of many, is that they're random.  Those who dislike randomness in games, dislike dice.

Randomness has a place in games, and strongly I recommend Greg Costikyan's brilliant and detailed exposition available at, "Randomness blight or bane".

I'll close with some "six word stories".  I occasionally ask blog readers to say six words about various topics, and here are some of the responses about "chance/randomness in games".  The quotes above are also responses to this question.

First are some of mine:
Chance provides a form of surprise.
Cards are more manageable than dice.
Egos are not involved, with dice.
No chance/randomness, two players: mostly puzzle.

And contributions from others:
Need some randomness, JUST NOT DICE!  ( BMinNY)
Randomness, for interesting situations; not outcomes (Matthew Rodgers)
Cards 'feel' less random than dice (davidestall)
A spoonful of chaos is fun (davidestall)
Randomness keeps you on your toes (davidestall) 
One. One. One. One. One. Impossible! (John Mitchell) [No, just improbable]
Used well, best game ingredient ever (Guido Gloor)
Life has randomness; why not games? (Wendell)
A good servant, a bad master (Anthony Simons)
Mastering chance is the true mastery  (Ien Cheng)
Do we reflect, or master, life? (Brian Leet)
Say a prayer, pass the ammunition  (Patrick Carroll)
Controlled chance: good; complete chaos: not  (David Brain)
Randomness is merely just another tool   (Russ Williams)
Randomness does not magically improve games  (Russ Williams)
The skilled make their own luck  (Steven Stadnicki)
Intelligently used, balances risk with reward  (Eversor)