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.
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At the same time I've opened an "Introduction to (Tabletop) Role-playing Game Design"
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I will soon start a Patreon campaign for support for my Game Design channel on YouTube, as well.