Sunday, May 29, 2016

My Game Design Philosophy

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

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

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

I prefer fairly simple-to-play games over fiddly, rules-complex, or many-pieces games.  I avoid any deliberately-added complexity.  My motto is "A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." - Antoine de Saint-Exupery.  Another form, about Japanese gardening actually, is "Your garden is not complete until there is nothing else that you can remove."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I model effects, not causes.

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

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

Saturday, May 14, 2016

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

(See Patreon note below)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Consequences in Games

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

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

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

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