Sunday, December 13, 2015

Are you Designing a Game, or Throwing one Together?

Here is the text of the slides.  The entire presentation (over 15 minutes), obviously, contains more than this text.

Are you Designing a Game, or Throwing one Together?
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
“Game Design” channel on YouTube

This is Really Important
Yes, there is creativity in game design, but it may amount to 10% of the whole
The rest is more or less engineering: identifying problems, proposing solutions, testing the results of those solutions, and so on
Scientific method is involved, more or less
It is not trial and error
(I use the meaning prevalent when I was young, that of guessing what might work, then checking to see if it does)
There seems to be a notion now that trial-and-error is more or less scientific method: NO!

It’s not a Guessing Game!
Let me use an example from programming to illustrate
While I was a college teacher, I substituted for a teacher who was ill in a beginning programming class
The students had a program to work on, so I walked around trying to help
In general, their program didn’t work
Programming is very logical.  The proper response is to figure out the program flow, identify where it went wrong, change the program, and test the solution

It works the same way in game design once you’re playing a prototype
That “identify” might include some intuition, and the solution might involve some creativity, but mostly it’s logic
But the students?
Rather than try to figure out why it wasn’t working, they just guessed, changed the program, and compiled it again to see what happened
If that didn’t work, they guessed something else
They were using trial and error (guess and check)
And they were frustrated, of course
So I tried to show them how to figure out the logic and flow of the program, rather than guess

Certainly, different people have different design methods
Some design more “from the gut” than via logic, hypothesis, and test
Nonetheless, if you are actually designing something, you are primarily using your brain, I think (I hope), not just inspiration
Inspiration is not very reliable!  It comes and goes
And the more you treat modification as an engineering problem, the more efficient you’ll be

Art versus Craft
The more you think of a game as art rather than craft, the more you may be inclined to rely on inspiration and intuition
Perhaps we should call that “game creation” or “game inspiration,” not “game design”
Practically speaking, though, it’s mostly craft once you have a playable prototype

NOT throwing things against the wall to see if they stick
Trial and error amounts to “throw things against the wall and see what sticks”
This is a terrible way to solve a problem, if you have any alternative
I’ve seen this dramatically illustrated

Egregious Example
A beginning designer had his simple (< 30 minutes, cards and scoring only) card game playtested by players new to the game
The game has already been successfully Kickstarted, but clearly was far from done – most of the cards were hand-written (not even computer generated), for example
As he started the game (he played – also an error in my view) – I saw that he had no rules with him
His response was, he played it 6 or 7 different ways, and was changing it to satisfy backers as well
My comment: already Kickstarted and the rules writing wasn’t being tested, since they weren’t even at hand

But then he said he was trying out a particular rule change
How can you try a change when the rest of the game isn’t stable?  You’re only trying with one of those half dozen ways to play!
When you playtest you playtest the whole game not just the part that you're experimenting with
The next question was, “how are you recording the results of the playtest”?
He usually had a notebook, he said, but not today

Though he did have a laptop on which he took notes after the game ended
By the way, this game involved player elimination – NOT desirable nowadays, even in a 30 minute game
And though it was a scoring game, the designer hadn’t bothered to bring the scoring devices, so everyone scored on their smartphones!
This is just sloppy. You’ve got to test the actual game, not substitutes!

Obvious Flaws
It was a card game of direct attack on other players (in a more than two-sided game)
There was no constraint on whom you could attack
So while I didn’t watch the game much, I asked afterward if there was a strong tendency to attack the leader
The answer from the players was “yes”

The game suffered from leader-bashing, but I’m not sure the designer recognized that term when I used it, and only had glimmerings of why it was undesirable
Then people suggested solutions, but the first (only attack those adjacent) would have pretty drastically changed a game that’s already Kickstarted!

Why is leader-bashing undesirable?
It takes most decision-making out of the game
It makes people want to sandbag
It’s dull because it’s predictable

Part 2

What we have here is a case of somebody throwing things against the wall to see what will stick
He tries to playtest the game in various ways and see what seems to work better
That’s Trial and Error (in the older, undesirable, sense)
And it helps show that Kickstarter is often about ideas and intentions rather than about an actual game
The art (he had it for a small number of cards) looked good, and that probably helped the KS a lot

Here’s the proper way to go about this, not just trying this and that, with a fairly detailed borrowed diagram, and with a simpler version:

Or more simply
Scientific Method
Wikipedia’s description of the scientific method (accessed 14 April 09) can be taken as a guide to what you’re doing as part of (but not all of) this design process:
“To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on gathering observable, empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of reasoning.  A scientific method consists of the collection of data through observation and experimentation, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses.”
This is a large part of the replan and especially the monitoring tasks

But More Than That
Unlike scientists, in most cases you must rely on fewer testing iterations
These are more like usability tests than scientific experiments (Nielsen-Norman group: or
On the other hand, you’re making changes in a design, as well as experimenting to see what happens

An Analogy
This engineering versus trial and error is comparable to how people learn software or home appliances/electronics
I read the manual (shocking). It’s amazing how much you can learn that way.  And far more efficient
Most people just dive in and try things
Or simply remain ignorant
The engineering style of game design is like reading the manual.  The T&E method is like diving in and trying things – much less efficient
Yes, not reading the manual is easier
(And yes, I prefer to read the rules to a game in order to learn it, unlike most people)

I’ve discussed this cycle at length in my “Learning Game Design” course on
The major point to make here is that you follow a process that relies on solving problems you’ve identified
But you also have to know what kinds of problems might occur
Such as leader-bashing in a card game
Or many others – which is why I make so many of my videos, to educate people about those possible problems

Trial & Error (guess and check) is poison unless you have no choice but to use it
If you rely heavily on intuition, more power to you
But that’s not something we want to teach to aspiring designers
If you think it’s all about inspiration, I think you’re “dead wrong”, any more than getting ideas is all about inspiration
You have to work at something to do it well consistently, not hope to be bailed out by random flashes of brilliance

For me as a teacher, I want people to understand a good method, and “inspiration/intuition” or especially trial and error are not good methods.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Triptych V: Three different topics in one blog post

Triptych V

Really Old Commercial Wargames

One of my favorite games before I encountered Avalon Hill wargames was American Heritage Broadsides. It was non-random; the only uncertainty in the game was in where the defender placed his cannon, some of which scored hits and some of which did not, information not available to the attacker until one of his ships passed the gun and took the consequences. At the other end of the spectrum we had Conflict, a game with planes and armies and ships (all metal miniatures), but which was mostly a dice game. You rolled two dice and moved two of your pieces the distance of one of the dice. When you moved over an opposing piece you eliminated it. The game amounted to putting yourself in the right position and hoping to roll doubles, which would let you roll again.

Along with the Avalon Hill games we had Risk and Diplomacy. Risk is a game that depends strongly on dice and on the luck of the territory cards. Diplomacy is a game with no overt random element but with simultaneous movement, so that sometimes, intricate tactics and possibly guessing or trying to divine the intentions of the enemy were involved. Of course in both games you had the potential for negotiation - more or less a requirement in Diplomacy - because each player was outnumbered heavily by the other players in combination. You had to talk to people to try to change those odds.

“Holes” (Plot and Setting) in Military Novels

In David Weber's well-known Honor Harrington military SF series, the space battles are quite detailed.  But as with most novels I read nowadays, there are holes you could drive a truck through, sometimes holes in setting, sometimes in plot.  In this series, for example, missiles are the long-range space battle weapon.  But in the books, battles often hinge on missiles having finite range because they burn up all their fuel, then "go ballistic" so that they can't maneuver (maneuver is particularly important).

Why not burn up some fuel, continue indefinitely at whatever velocity one reaches, then burn the rest of the fuel for maneuver when they reach the enemy?  So simply obvious.  Weber seems to somehow be thinking in earthly terms, where a missile that isn't burning fuel, slows down and eventurally crashes.  Doh!

“Wave Your Hand” History

We have always had “pop” (popular) history as now embodied in The History Channel, though in the past it was in books and not in video. We’ve also had speculative history, and it has to be said that most historians have to speculate at one time or another because there is no way to know the truth.

I’m not sure how much in the past we’ve had what I call “wave your hand history”. By this I mean history where the “historian” collects a series of bits of history and links them all to one particular thesis by saying “well, this could relate to” whatever topic he or she is pursuing. At some point this “could” becomes “does” and pure speculation turns into “history”. For example, there is no contemporary evidence for the existence of “King Arthur,” whether as King of the Britons or as a war leader. But there’s an entire industry of book publishing (and public speaking) revolving around the supposed existence of Arthur. The epitome of this is the book “The Historic King Arthur” by Frank D. Reno, who has evidently made a career of getting paid to speculate about Arthur. He takes little bits of information that we have about various shadowy people and presumes that all relate to someone named Arthur, and ends up with a “history” of the “real Arthur”. To me this is somewhere between disingenuous and just plain dishonest. This period really is the Dark Ages with very little written information available, and not much archaeology.

The fundamental premise in Da Vinci Code (Mary Magdelaine) feels much like this.  (I have not read the book, only watched the movie.)


Bits of news:
I intend to be at the UK Game Expo in 2016.

Sea Kings is less than $40 at

Black Friday will see a sale on my online classes - see Thanksgiving Day. This is the only time of the year that I give discounts beyond the standard discount.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Video (screencast): Confusions of Game Design: Intricate with Complex

Confusions of Game Design Series: Complexity is rarely desirable, Intricacy often is
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
“Game Design” channel on YouTube

What’s the Difference?
It's pretty hard to separate the dictionary definitions: each is listed as a synonym of the other
But as I use it in gaming, there is a significant difference
I'm differentiating the details of the rules from what you need to account for during play
To be intricate is to increase what the player must take into account when deciding what to do, with minimal additions to the rules (minimal additional complexity)
Great classic core “gamers games” are often intricate, but rarely complex

Chess is not complex in its rules – especially if you use flat pieces with movement illustrated on the piece - but is highly intricate in its play
Checkers (draughts) is much less complex, but also less intricate
Candyland is very simple, but has no intricacy at all
Some Euro games are made deliberately complex in an attempt to increase intricacy

Dictionary Definitions
( adjective
1. having many interrelated parts or facets; entangled or involved: an intricate maze.
2. complex; complicated; hard to understand, work, or make: an intricate machine.
(Google) adjective
very complicated or detailed; "an intricate network of canals"
synonyms: complex, complicated, convoluted, tangled, entangled, twisted;
1:  having many complexly interrelating parts or elements :  complicated
2:  difficult to resolve or analyze

Let’s  Focus on:
“having many interrelated parts or elements”
“difficult to resolve or analyze”
NOT complexity of rules, but factors the player must take into account to attempt to play "perfectly“
(This assumes that the player’s decisions make a difference – not true in some games)
When you put the player “on the horns of a dilemma”, difficult decisions with viable several choices, you’re using/adding intricacy to the game

An aside about opposition
The rules-light way to add intricacy to a game is to add human opponents
The rules don’t change, but the player must account for other player intentions
Some video games try to do this via programming, but a good human opponent is always more resourceful than the computer opponent can be

“The Core Loop”
Games tend to have one core loop, the thing players do over and over again (in variations, we hope)
Some games are very “pure”, say checkers, go, tic-tac-toe
The loop in a FPS is “move and shoot”; in a stealth shooter it’s often “sneak and overwhelm”
A game can be good, should be good, on the basis of the core loop alone

How to Add Intricacy?
Puzzle-games (including most solo/single-player/co-op games) add complexity
What a game designer really wants to add is intricacy, but not complexity
I try to go back to my core motto: "A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."  (Antoine de Saint-Exupery)
Another form, about Japanese gardening, is "Your garden is not complete until there is nothing else that you can remove."

Make games as rules-simple (non-complex) as possible. Make them intricate, not complex.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Video (screencast) FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) in the Rules? No!

This has been added to my extensive (and unique) "How to Write Clear Game Rules" course.  For more information see

Below is the text of the slides.  There's more to the screencast than just this text, of course.

Short Answer: No
A series of questions and answers (which is what a FAQ is) makes sense for a diverse entity such as a website or company
It makes no sense for a rulebook
If these are important or even just relevant questions, they should be incorporated into the rules

I see people who expect a FAQ, but what they really seem to expect, and what I gladly supply, is to highlight rules often missed or misunderstood
But that’s not a FAQ, not even close

“Cheat Sheet”
I also customarily provide each player with a Player’s Aid (“Cheat sheet”) that describes the most important rules in one page
Often excerpted verbatim from the rules
Some players refer to these often
I’ve had playtest sessions where someone asked me a question, and I got it wrong, but someone looking at the cheatsheet corrected me
Or I couldn’t remember, and it was in the cheatsheet
Even I refer to it occasionally!
But the cheatsheet is not part of the rules, and is always overruled by the rules (usually I state this explicitly)

Do include “Rules often missed”.  Do provide a cheat sheet.  But don’t call it a FAQ, it’s not.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Video (screencast): The “Demise” of the Board Game?

Below is the text of the slides.  There's more than that in the video, of course.

The “Demise” of the Board Game?
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher

Well, it sounds good; but really, “severe diminishment” is more accurate
I’m talking about fewer traditional-style board games where the board records maneuver and geospatial relationships
Instead we have far more card games . . .
And lots more “board games” where the board is a status indicator-recorder, not a field for maneuver
Many of these games are essentially abstract despite having a “theme” tacked on

What are boards for in games?
Think of classic (pre-commercial) board games
The board is almost always used to record geospatial relationships
And the core of the game is maneuver (or occasionally, placement) of pieces in geospatial relationships
War is about maneuver and geospatial relationships, and classic games are essentially wargames
There’s placement rather than maneuver in Go, but the locations of the pieces in relation to one another is very important

It’s a strong tradition
Monopoly, oddly, provided a board and made movement (though not maneuver – you had no choice) and current location important in an industry where it isn't!
(It did provide a form of the real estate mantra: “the three most important things are location, location, location”)
Game of Life also provided location and movement unnecessarily

“Board” games that don’t need a board
In lots of so-called board games the board is a status recorder/indicator, where there is no maneuver, where geospatial relationships are not part of the game
In other words, games that are like card games with lots more record-keeping
The record-keeping could be done just as well in other ways
Player “layouts” are popular

Rise of Card Games
At our local university game club, we usually see far more card games than board games being played
Even if you don’t count Magic: the Gathering, which is one-third of the club
Card games rarely involve geospatial relationships, even less often maneuver
But cards are easier to transport than boards
Card games are (on average) simpler than board games
And offer the opportunity to put much of the rules on the cards, so players don’t need to read as much before playing

Short Games
It’s also much easier to design a short game using cards than using a board
And short games are “where it’s at” these days
What used to be a filler (one hour) is now a relatively big game; fillers are 15-20 minutes
“5 minute games” are popular, though inevitably shallow

By the Numbers
"ICv2's study of the hobby game market estimates that retail for 2013 is now $700 million. Broken down by category, that covers collectible games ($450M), miniatures ($125M), board games ($75M), card games ($35M), and RPGs ($15M). "  (Michael Tresca)
That “card game” category is odd, with best sellers I’ve never heard of
Look at the numbers.  Games that are usually cards are at $485M

Less than a tenth
“Board games” includes all those status-indicator-board-games, as well as the maneuver board games
I think it includes all the games that are card games but spoken of and sold as board games, such as Munchkin, Bang!, Lost Cities, many more
So what fraction is still occupied by maneuver/spatial relationship games?  Less than one tenth compared with card games?

The Future?
I have no expectation that these trends will change, in fact I think they’ll “get worse” (from a board game player’s point of view)
It’s the Age of Instant Gratification, which cards serve better
Also it’s the Age of Convenience, and card games are more convenient
Finally, it’s the Age of Short Attention Spans, and card games can be shorter

Another Aspect
I discuss this more in other screencasts, but will mention it here
The traditional boardgame was a game of Consequence.  You had to take responsibility for what happened.  You earned what you achieved
Modern games are moving toward a Reward basis.  You are rewarded for participation.  The game guides you.  If a player fails, he blames the game (especially true in video games)
In this respect, board games are also “going away”

You see why I said “the demise of the board game?”  Perhaps I should have said, “of new board games”, as the old ones are still going strong.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Video (screencast): Brief examples of playtesting individual modifications and optional rules

Text of the slides: obviously there's more in the screencast than this.

Brief Examples of Playtesting a Modification
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
“Game Design” channel on YouTube

Late Stage Playtesting
At some point your game will be “mostly done”, well-playtested, but ideas for modifications will still come up
Maybe a few PTers will wish something were a little different
Now you can try such things
At this point it isn’t, “make the game good,” it’s “make the game slightly better”
You could say this is the last few percentage points of improvement
But many of the attempts will be rejected, if the game works well

I have a “screwage” style pirate game, everyone has a hand of cards and a ship
It’s a combination of historical pirates and fantasy pirates (as in the recent Caribbean films)
Much of the action revolves around encounters with ships at sea
There are dice rolls for pursuit, for cannonfire, for boarding
Lots of dice rolls, all told
It’s more about the story than about strategy, but some people get frustrated with chance

A Solution?
So I said, we’ll let players trade in some of their loot for luck tokens
They can pay a luck token to reroll a die (but only once per event)
So we tried it
For the first two games, no one used them
Loot is pretty valuable, a good score is getting into double figures)
In the third game, the player who most got frustrated with chance did use them
But these players were accustomed to playing the game as it stood
What would others think who had never played before?  I don’t know yet!

Optional Rules
So right now, I think of it as an optional rule
Many optional rules begin life as something that is tried, but only suits a minority segment of players
So it becomes an optional rule for those groups where that particular kind of player is common
Some people think there can be only one way to play a game
But then buy an expansion that changes how the game is played – but it’s “official”

Another Example
A 2-6 player space wargame, more or less
Players get points for destroying opponent worlds/systems as well as for holding systems at game end
For much of the game’s life, I gave double points for held systems over destroyed
But that tended to focus players on defense, and I wanted a more free-flowing, offensive game (there are reasons)

So I tried equal points for holding and destroying
But that made the game too offensively-minded
Even when I required that you hold at least one system at the end to score any points at all
So I settled on one more point per held system, than per destroyed system

But I’ve included the other two options in the rules for those who like to play more defensively, or more offensively

Don’t waste ideas when you can make them optional rules that satisfy a minority segment of players.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Video (screencast): What part does Creativity play in Game Design?

What part does Creativity play in Game Design?
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
“Game Design” channel on YouTube

Quoting from my Book “Game Design”
“Creativity is an important but small component of game design.  Most of the work involved in the game is fairly straightforward thinking and problem-solving.  This is not to say that it’s easy, but it does not involve a great deal of creativity.  Novice game designers often have a confused idea that game design is all about creativity, which is very far from the truth.”

Some Quotes about Creativity
"All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up."  Pablo Picasso  
"The key question isn't ‘What fosters creativity?’ But it is why in God's name isn't everyone creative? Where was the human potential lost? How was it crippled? I think therefore a good question might be not why do people create? But why do people not create or innovate? We have got to abandon that sense of amazement in the face of creativity, as if it were a miracle if anybody created anything."   Abraham Maslow
"Before you think outside the box, check inside the box first."   Mark Rosewater

But Creativity can be Misunderstood
Creativity (in game design, at any rate) is mostly not about “getting ideas”
It’s not “brain fever”, not “wild imagination” – anybody can come up with nutty, off-the-wall stuff
It’s finding unusual ways to solve problems
Not necessarily unique – that’s very unusual
Not necessarily flashy
The “ashtray” example

Too many think creativity is all there is to game design
The "sexy" part of game design is the conception and elaboration of an idea that may turn into an enjoyable game
“Sexy" in game design is like "sexy" in a marriage, it can only make a difference at the beginning, sooner or later there has to be a lot more there
Game design, like long-term marriage, depends on a lot more than the “sexy” part

“Convenient Sex?”
Many so-called game designers want the equivalent of a "convenient girlfriend/boyfriend" relationship, the most fun parts without the work that makes it last
You can try to do this, but you'll end up with a lot of half done (and usually half-baked) "games" that never have a chance of being published, unless you self-publish them

Creativity and Constraints
It’s not uncommon to see so-called “designers” complain that constraints limit their creativity
They don’t realize that, in art as well as in game design, constraints promote creativity
Eras where “there are no rules,” such as the Rococo in music, or modern painting, lack lasting masterpieces [some may argue about the painting!]
When you can “do anything”, it’s really hard to decide what to do – yet you haven’t really contributed to entertaining your target audience
You always have a target audience, whether you know it or not

Creativity versus Execution
Creativity is important, but not nearly as important as overall execution and a willingness to stick with it until the end, when you're bloody well sick of the game but it still needs that final polishing
Adams and Rollings in Game Design Fundamentals  estimate "innovation by the game designer contributes no more than 5 percent to the fun of the game."  It's very important, but it's not the major part of the job.  Including stage (level) design, they increase the influence of imagination to 14 percent

Inspiration and Perspiration
I prefer a modified form of Thomas Edison's dictum, amounting to "success is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration.“
(Edison said 1% and 99%, but he was famous for using trial and error (guess and check results))

Some people have a talent for designing games, some don't.
Inborn talent may make the difference between a decent game and a really good one, though this can be debated
Nonetheless, it is a craft that can be learned, not something that only a few lucky individuals can do
Necessary creativity is in most of us, we just need to bring it out (or bring it back, in Picasso and Maslow's terms).
It's execution that counts for far more in game design than creativity.

Much material here quoted from my book “Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games Start to Finish” (McFarland, 2012, inexpensively available at Amazon, other online bookstores in paper and electronic formats)

Friday, July 24, 2015

Video (screencast): Good once, good three times, or always good – what game do you want to make?

Below is the text of the slides.  There's much more to the video than that, of course.

Good once, good three times, or always good – what game do you want to make?
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher

Robert Heinlein’s Saying
It’s been decades since I read “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”
But a friend tells me that author Robert Heinlein at one point says this about the nature of jokes: "Funny once, funny twice, or always funny"
Think about it, it’s true (and true of books, as well, if you substitute “worth reading” for “funny”)
And I think it’s become true of games, as well, if we substitute “worth playing” (and I’ll say three, not two)
(We’re ignoring all those jokes, books, games that aren’t worthwhile even once. . .)

How it applies to games
This tends to apply to modern games, both video and tabletop.  "Enjoyable once, enjoyable thrice, or enjoyable always."
3500+ tabletop games a year, and tens of thousands of video games (think of all the mobiles (500 per day on iOS) and F2P games)
In both cases, it’s immensely easier to self-publish than in the past
AAA video games have always tended to be “one and done” – “I beat the game” and then I don’t play any more
Because they’re really puzzles more than games
They so often have always-correct solutions (like puzzles)

“Cult of the New”
But tabletop games are leaning the same way, not “I beat the game” (though there is that) but the “Cult of the New”
So most games are played just a few times before everyone moves on to the next
This is exacerbated as there are more and more new games
I think we’ve come to the point that most games are designed to meet this standard of “play three times” (or less)

Need for Personal Validation
So why don’t more people “call out” those weak games?
Heavily-hyped games (e.g. on Kickstarter) build up a “credit”
Young people, especially, feel that they need others to validate their likes, so that they campaign in favor of what they like (and against what they don't, or against anyone who doesn't like what they like).  Hence the hype increases

Emotional Investment
Older generations tend to have more belief in their own preferences, and don't feel a need to campaign for them or against the contrary
A result: there is less actual analysis of games and more emotional “us and them”
Magnified by the Internet, of course
Those who let themselves be sold on a game before it’s released, are emotionally invested in the success of the game, so they’re less likely to criticize it once it’s on the market

That’s sad . . .
As long as there are enough buyers for “enjoyable once” or “enjoyable thrice”, it will continue
It’s easier to design games that way, too.  You can forget about gameplay depth, and about replayability
You can design the game to be “transparent”, that is, people can figure out how to play well after playing once
No, this is not how deep games used to be designed, it’s “party and family” game design

But that’s where the market is
How many people do you know that study individual games in order to play better?  Not many, I’ll bet
Heck, most people don’t even want to read the rules these days
Not surprising that the overall quality of games for “serious” players is decreasing
But that’s where the market is nowadays, short, simple, easy-to-digest games, bagatelles for the most part that we can play a few times and give up
Much easier to design such games, as well

More and more players treat games as time-killers
As long as the individual game isn't too long
What "too long" is varies, but I was recently at a game designer guild meeting where I described an hour-long game as a "filler", and was told fillers are now 15-20 minutes
Not surprising that so many games are shallow, lacking substance

What standard are you working toward as a designer?

@lewpuls on twitter
Online courses (with discounts) listed at

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Video (screencast): Pitching a tabletop game? Don’t Talk much about Mechanics

Below is the text of the slides.  There's more to this in the video, of course.

Pitching a tabletop game? Don’t Talk much about Mechanics
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
“Game Design” channel on YouTube

I work with publishers who usually publish games that are models of something, that clearly represent something, not abstracts
Abstract games are hard to sell – because there’s no story attached
Publishers vary as much as designers do

Following is for an email pitch, but most applies to an in-person or over-the-phone pitch

But isn’t a game the mechanics?
Technically, quite a bit; practically, NO!
Mechanics are a means to an end, not the end itself
Games are about an impression the game makes on the players
That depends on many things
mechanics are secondary
(for example) Depends on the level of player interactivity and whether or not it has always-correct solutions (a puzzle)

What’s important is what the player actually does
Talk about that, not about mechanics
Except insofar as mechanics are relevant to player action
But keep in mind, players rarely think of themselves as “doing worker placement” or “building a deck”
They think in terms of winning, and of the context of the game

Publishers also want to know the components so that they can make a ballpark estimate of cost
How many cards, how many dice, what kind of pieces and how many
Especially if the pitch comes from an unknown designer, there's a significant chance that the game will be too expensive to produce for what it does/is
A big selling-point of games (to publishers) is inexpensive components (16 or 20 cards only, for example).

What makes the game Unusual?
It’s the Kiss of Death to say, for example, “it’s a deck-building game”.
There are hundreds of deck-building games.  What sets yours apart?  Why would anyone bother with it?
The publisher wants to know what makes your game unusual, not what makes it ordinary!
Don’t say “it’s a worker placement game.”
OMG, another one?!

Your definition when you pitch
If your definition as a game designer of your game is that it's a worker placement game (say), you've already failed.
There are hundreds of such.  And the mechanic you use is irrelevant to what the game actually does
You may be proud of how you’ve made certain mechanics fit together
But that isn’t what the game is about, not to a player or publisher
So don’t talk about mechanics, unless you have a unique, surefire mechanic (both of which are very unlikely, understand)

A list?
Next slide is a list of items I include in a one-page pitch sheet (not the cover letter)
The only thing that approaches mechanics is “Game Type”, where I might say “Sweep of history game” – but that isn’t mechanics, is it?
(Sequence of play could be called a mechanic, too)
Keep in mind, these categories are for a one page pitch sheet, not for the cover letter
In the cover letter I establish my credentials and my interest in this particular publishing company
Which is harder to do if you don’t have a track record yet

Number of Players:
Game Length:
What does the game represent?:
Game Type:
How to Win:
Who does the player represent?:
What does the player do?:
Sequence of Play:
Game End:
Attractions for Buyers:
Suitability for Expansion:

Talk about how your game affects players, what the components are, why you’ve designed it as you have (where you might mention mechanics).

I intend to be at GenCon and WBC (from Wed afternoon). 
I'm giving our talks at GenCon (one per day), one at WBC (Thursday afternoon)

Monday, July 06, 2015

Video (screencast): Confusions of Game Design Series: Dominant Strategies are OK? (Only in puzzles, not games)

Here is the text of the slides (there's more to the video than that, of course):

Confusions of Game Design Series: Dominant Strategies are OK? (Only in puzzles, not games)
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
“Game Design” channel on YouTube

Part of a Series
This is a series that will likely run for years
It’s about some ways game designers can get confused
As such, sometimes it will be semantical as well as practical
Primarily it’s about games with human opposition, or a strong semblance
Hence, most of the examples will be from tabletop games, though much of the discussion will apply to video games as well

What’s a Dominant Strategy?
This is a way of playing a game - a strategy - that is so good, you must play that way to succeed/win
In a puzzle, that’s what’s expected, an “always-correct solution”: what you do to solve the puzzle
Many “games,” e.g. single-player video games, are far more puzzles than games, and have such solutions
There may be more than one solution in a VG, but once you figure it out, it’ll always work

So in puzzles, DS is OK
Players expect a puzzle will have one or a few solutions
They don’t want randomness to mess it up
(They don’t want other players to mess it up!)
One way to tell:
You can only do a “speed run” when there’s a solution to a game
(“Speed run” – go through a single-player video game in 5 or 10 minutes, when it takes many hours to play the first time – you’ve already figured out the solution)

Stories, too
Many games with stories built in are linear, that is, players must follow a particular path to complete the story
Sounds much like a puzzle, doesn’t it?
In this kind of story (which isn’t the only kind in games), dominant strategy/always-correct solution is OK, if not expected
Story-in-video-game tends to be linear because it’s a lot cheaper to make!

“Multiplayer Solitaire”
In tabletop games, especially “Euro” style, we often see games for 3-4 (or more) players that are essentially puzzles
There are a few “paths to victory” that are in fact solutions
These are usually transparent games, where these paths are quickly seen
Players have little or no influence (within the game) on one another, hence the “solitaire” part
At most, you may be able to block one player’s path, but then you’re not following a path

In Games, DS is a BAD IDEA!
First, it’s boring
What real games – good ones, anyway - offer is a variety of ways to play that can succeed in certain circumstances
This derives from the game, but also from having more than one player
Players provide uncertainty, difficult predictability, Yomi, invention, that a programmed opponent cannot
If a game has a dominant strategy, it’s BROKEN!

Conventional Speech
Conventionally, we talk about many actual puzzles as games
It’s built into the video game industry (which would better be called interactive software entertainment industry)
The word “game” has come to have a very broad meaning, encompassing all kinds of entertainment software (Wii Fit, Wii Music, Katamari Damacy)
But you design puzzles differently than actual games
We also talk about contests as games
Contests like hot-dog eating competitions, Olympic swimming races, anything you can time or otherwise measure objectively where players cannot use the rules to affect one another (psychology is another thing)

Be Aware
Are you designing something that has always-correct solutions?
Are you content to design a puzzle or linear story-game, or do you want to design a game?
It’s a lot easier to design a game if you have human opposition

Some designers like one or the other type (I despise puzzles), and some players lean strongly one way or the other

Monday, June 22, 2015

My experiences as a Kickstarter backer are disappointing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE (22 Aug 15): Received my coins (in individual miniature ziplock bags).  And Doublesix due to be mailed soon.

UPDATE (18 Oct 15): Received by Doublesix dice. So two KS now left for fulfillment.  (I haven't supported a new one since this was originally posted.)

UPDATE (7 Nov 15): The man in charge of the last dice project has said he will refund the money, as his health does not permit fulfillment.

Gripmats still promise that fulfillment will happen.

UPDATE (13 Nov 16): Nothing from the last dice project, I don't expect to see that money again.

Gripmats still talking about fulfillment. Some people have paid shipping in order to get theirs earlier. Further, the product itself has suffered in manufacturing, unfortunately. So I'm still waiting to see what happens. The original estimated delivery date was January 2014 [sic], do we're approaching three years.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

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

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

Dr. Lewis Pulsipher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 06, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I've recently opened a brief (one hour?) online course, "Prospering at Game Conventions and Conferences" on Udemy.
This is officially $5, but FREE to you with this URL-coupon:

At the same time I've opened an "Introduction to (Tabletop) Role-playing Game Design"
More than four hours long, but it IS an introduction.
This is $15 on Udemy, with this URL-coupon it's $12:$12

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

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Game Patents: A Waste of your Money

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

Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
“Game Design” channel on YouTube

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two recently published classes, one of them free:
"Introduction to (Tabletop) Role-playing Game Design"
More than four hours long, but it IS an introduction.
This is $15 on Udemy, with this coupon it's $12:$12

 I've just opened a brief (hour?) online course, "Prospering at Game Conventions and Conferences"
This is officially $5, but FREE to you with this coupon:

Friday, May 15, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Triptych IV

Three different topics in one blog post.

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

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

“Growing” the Hobby

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

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

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

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

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

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

 How being a game designer changes your perception

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books are like games?

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Gameplay Depth versus Variety

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More in Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 15, 2015

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

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

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