Sunday, May 20, 2007

New speed record

I tend to take years to complete games (I do the development as well as the design, unlike some designers). I usually take quite a long time (sometimes years) before I get to the point of having other people play, or of writing full rules. Recently I set a new record for speed, however.

Last Saturday I was talking with my wife in the "parlor". I had on the table a set of plastic pieces I'd included in my last purchase from EAI Education, not because I had any particular use for them but because they are different. They are designed to be stacked. I said to Sue, "I ought to design a game to use these pieces." (Interjection: this has already happened once: I designed a game to use the colored glass beads or "jewels" that are sold in crafts stores, and that has led to several more games using those pieces.) We talked a little, and she suggested "asteroids" as a theme. I had been trying to think of how to use a connectivity board instead of the hex boards I have used for the glass bead games. In the end, I adapted a concentric circle board (for a stellar system) I'd devised 25 years ago.

By the end of the day I had a playable prototype of an "asteroid mining" game. The next day I played a four player and an eight (!) player version solo.

The following Friday four people played it at Rick Steeves' Game Night in Durham, including Rick and Jeff Dougan, who are big proponents of the glass bead games. It worked quite well, much as I expected, and now I'm in the phase of tweaking to get the game to work most desirably, rather than of making major changes. I should say here that I do not ask people to playtest a game until I think it works reasonably. I think players should be able to enjoy a game they're testing, rather than work at it. So I would never stop a playtest by other people part way through--it's a game, and it should be played to its end, just as any already-published game would be.

The following day I drafted most of the rules, and today (Sunday again) I'll finish the first draft.

Two years ago I would have said that I almost never design an abstract game. But that has changed. I have to say that it is immensely less work to design an abstract-ish symmetric game, than to design an asymmetric historical (strongly themed) game. I can see how people like R. Knizia can create so many games (and of course, he does it full time nowadays). Historical games also tend to be longer, which means they're more time-consuming to try. And much harder to get playtested a sufficient number of times. Asymmetry requires much more playtesting for balance, too. As many if not most Euros are abstract-ish (even if they have an official theme) symmetric games, it's easy to see why there are so many of them being published every year.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Is there a Generation Gap in BoardGaming?

Older people may tend to recognize the existence of "generation gaps" more than young people do. There are certainly people who make a living explaining the differences between generations to other people, and I suspect few people doubt that there are significant differences between generations. All generalizations about generations have many exceptions, of course, but in my experience it is absolutely scary how many such generalizations seem to be widely applicable.

I have some anecdotes and observations, and I wonder how many gamers have seen generational differences among boardgamers (who are somewhat different than video gamers, where some of these anecdotes come from). Generally when I say "younger people" below I'm referring to adults or near-adults, not to children.

I recall listening to a talk by a 25 year old (who had already written one or two books and was widely known) about differences between "Gen Y" (also called Millennials or Me Generation) and older people. Somehow the topic of cheat codes in video games came up. He said a Millennial was perfectly content to find cheat codes, jump to the last level of a game, and beat it. An older person might say "you cheated". The Millennial says "I beat the game, didn't I? I just enjoyed the fruits of my research, I didn't cheat." The older person says, "but the point is enjoying the journey, not the end--you didn't beat the game, you went around it". The Millennial disagrees. One of the students in my college class for high school students says there's a device that you can buy called a "Shark" that contains cheat codes for lots of games--you don't even have to look them up somewhere online! What's the point?, says an older generation.

Video games have changed over the years. They are much more likely to "lead you by the nose" now (linear plot) than years ago. The games have changed to appeal to a wider audience (and perhaps a younger audience). I was astonished to hear about video games in which you don't have to aim at targets, you just point in the general direction of the enemy and the computer takes care of the rest. There also seem to be video games that automatically heal you, and in other ways make the game easier to survive. How much of this is due to changes in youthful preferences, and how much to a desire to reach a broad audience, I don't know.

I believe I see a generational difference in Dungeons and Dragons, between the older versions and 3rd edition. Someone called 3rd edition "Fantasy Squad Leader", not an adventure so much as a detailed tactical military operation. (I must say that I played first edition D&D as a wargame, but never in the excruciating detail of 3rd edition.) But the bigger difference is in the attitude of the players. A first edition referee's maxim was, "players will attempt to find unearned advantages--prevent it". In the third edition, everyone looks for unearned advantages, and seems to think that's perfectly OK. Hence there are myriads of "prestige" classes published, hundreds of new skills, and even the basic ability numbers are jiggered to provide more unearned advantages. The entire game is much more a "power trip" than first or second edition was. I think a lot of this is attributable to generational differences.

When young people who have only played video games get into boardgames, I find that many are quite passive, unsure what to do. I think this comes from the nature of (console) video games, where you can succeed through persistence, by trial and error, and you don't need to analyze your situation and decide what to do. If you use trial and error in a boardgame you'll lose a lot of games. If you use trial and error in a video game, in most cases you'll succeed sooner or later. After a video gamer has played a game some, then he or she has the benefit of trial and error and can become a good player. But the analytical side of gaming, what I expect to see in game players, isn't there for the console gamer. (There are, of course, many, many exceptions.)

This leads to another difference I see. Some older folks (myself included) try to play video games without resorting to frequent respawning (going back to a saved game to start over from there--respawning may be the wrong term, but that's what I'll use here). Many video games have deliberately been made so difficult that it's impossible for even the best players to make it through without frequent respawning, but not all are like that. By and large, "millennials" don't seem to find anything wrong with constant respawning. It helps them get the optimal result to help them farther on. (It's kind of like the "Easy Button" in Staples commercials--respawning is hitting the Easy Button until you get it right.)

One would suppose that younger people will be more likely to misread rules than older people. The tendency now is to skim rather than read carefully. A great many people of all generations don't want to read the rules, if only because it seems like work, not fun. K12 and college teachers are currently struggling with students who simply do not read anything that's in print, and don't even read online material well. One of the great inventions, perhaps a greater invention than the computer, the book, is slowly becoming obsolete for many people.

I am an advocate of audio and video tutorials to help people learn how to play games, because over time we'll see fewer and fewer people who are willing and able to fully read and understand rules. (These comments apply particularly to games with more than a page or two of rules, of course.) When I bought a copy of Settlers of Catan a few years ago to see what the hubbub was about, I was impressed that there were really two sets of rules, one the "rules" and one a guide that essentially repeated everything in a different way. I'd guess that this occurred as a result of newbies purchasing the game with the original single set of rules, and not being able to figure out how to play, but I do not know the history of it.

Regular denizens of online game sites such as BGG and ConsimWorld may sneer at this--there is a form of elitism in any hobby--but the fact is, publishers need to sell games, and the online community alone is not sufficient to keep publishers earning a living. They have to reach out to others. And games will need to adjust accordingly. We already see some adjustment in the popularity of very simple (as in easy-to-learn) games.

Anyway, does anyone else have anecdotes that illustrate generational differences in game players?

Sunday, May 06, 2007

"The 'Death' of Game Magazines"?

"The 'Death' of Game Magazines"?

I am going to repeat part of a previous post to provide background for the present observation.

A recent Wired magazine included an article on "crowdsourcing". This is an Internet phenomenon: the Internet provides access to many, many "amateur" practitioners of a skill, such that they now compete with professionals (and lower the prices available to professionals). The first example is stock photography: companies used to pay hundreds or thousands for small numbers of stock photos, but now there are sources of good digital photos available for stock use at $1 a photo. Why pay a hundred times as much when the "amateur" photos are of excellent quality?

To turn to gaming, I believe that a form of "crowdsourcing" has happened to the role playing game industry. Quite apart from the glut of professional products, there are many, many products published by both standard publishers and PDF publishers that are written "by the crowd". And there are many more that are available for free online at a large number of Web sites. To put it another way, there are so many fanboys and fangirls willing to write RPG material for nothing or next to nothing, material easy and cheap to find on the Internet, that traditional publishers cannot charge much for their publications (and cannot pay their authors much, consequently). RPG publishing "collapsed" a couple years ago, as I understand it, and I don't see any indication that it will recover, because of crowdsourcing. (See, the article link at the bottom "Is the RPG Industry Screwed", if you're interested in more about this--and this article doesn't even take into account the large quantity of free material now available.)

My point today: crowdsourcing and podcasting have largely "done in" games magazines as a category, though there are still a few. I think magazines (game magazines, at any rate) are facing a form of crowdsourcing. Before the Web, if you wanted to read good quality (usually) writing about games, you had to read gaming magazines. Now there are so many free Web sites and communities such as BoardGameGeek (BGG) that readers feel little need to subscribe to expensive magazines. People write their stuff and put it on BGG and Web sites, or they put it in podcasts. At a minimum, the result is fragmentation of interests. And the more fragmentation we have, the harder it is for a commercial magazine to exist, because costs-per-copy go up as circulation decreases. At a "maximum", people are unwilling to pay for any commercial magazine because there is sufficient free material available

I understand that recently Game Quarterly ceased publication. However, this could be because the parent company's Game Expo 2007 failed rather than for for lack of readers. Further, WOTC recently decided not to renew the license to Paizo Publishing for Dungeon and Dragon magazines, which will cease publication. WOTC evidently intends to publish material on their Web site. Again, it may be that Paizo wanted to continue publishing, but WOTC preferred to stop a forf of competition.

This ties in with the newspaper industry. Newspaper readership is going down. Newspaper people know it, but it's hard for them to do something about it. Gannett started USA Today as an entertainment newspaper rather than a news newspaper, and that has worked for them. Local newspaper readership is (I'm told) generally people 35-50, then people older than that, and lastly people younger than that. Among other things, newspapers are too "staid" for modern tastes, but the main problem is that many younger people get their news online, either by word or by video, or from the television. Why read a newspaper unless you're really interested in local community content?

Early in the history of the Web, newspapers tried to charge for access to their online material. Readers then switched to free newspapers such as the San Jose Mercury, and soon the "pay" newspapers disappeared. Since newspapers depend heavily on advertising revenue in any case, the "newspaper business model" can be adjusted to take advantage of online opportunities.

To go back to the magazines, it's unlikely that Dungeon and Dragon could have been successfully started today. I was told the readership averaged mid-30s in age, IIRC. Young people as a group simply don't read newspapers or magazines--they read online or don't read much at all, preferring to watch or listen.

Some time ago I tried to find some figures for magazines to see if circulation was trending downward, as it is for newspapers. My quest was inconclusive. I suspect numbers may be buoyed by many "niche" magazines doing a reasonable business for people who are not, by and large, denizens of the Internet. Since boardgame playing is often associated with computer game playing, and computer gamers are usually quite comfortable with the Internet, I'd guess that gamers, as a category, are more Internet-oriented than many other groups of enthusiasts.

Dungeon and Dragon magazines paid five cents a word last I knew, a good rate compared to nothing. They also had the peculiar policy, required by WOTC, that they bought all rights to articles: that is, once they published your article, you no longer had any right to publish (including on the Web) or resell it. This is not customary in magazine publishing although it is now common in RPG publishing--another result of "crowdsourcing".

Game magazines still exist, such as Knucklebones . From my limited reading of the magazine I suspect it can continue to prosper because it depends for broad distribution on readers who are unlikely to be denizens of online communities such as BGG. This is not to say BGGers don't read it as well; but "regular" BGGers are a small group compared to the total of boardgame fans, and a slick magazine must rely on a higher circulation to prosper. (I know the editor of a scholarly numismatic journal which is published in the US, but printed in Asia. IIRC, he said as long as he could produce enough to fill half a container, it was more economical to print there, and ship by sea, than to print in the US. But game magazines with decreasing circulations may be unable to print in such quantities.)

ATO and S&T magazines maintain a presence based primarily on their "complete wargame each issue" philosophy. I don't know of a magazine that provides a complete non-wargame each issue, though there may be one that is touting a complete "expansion" each issue.

I was surprised when Games Journal ended publication, since as an online magazine it had virtually no expenses. It seems that even online magazines suffer from lack of contributions, when they cannot afford to pay contributors. It's easier to write an informal piece in a blog, or on BGG, than a formal pieces for something like Games Journal.

The trend can be seen elsewhere. InfoWorld, a venerable computer industry magazine that was free to qualifying individuals, recently ceased publication of a paper version. Other industry magazines such as InfoWorld and Business Week are much smaller than they used to be.

The Web is more suited than magazines to short attention spans common amongst the digital/playstation generation. I have been struck by the number of commenters on BGG who say "your post [not actually mine, in these cases] was so long I didn't read all of it but I'd like to say . . ." though the post in question was much shorter than a typical magazine article. It doesn't seem likely that such folks would read much of a magazine, but who knows.

There is a lot more material about games to read these days, but many fewer game magazines, than I recall from the 1970s and 1980s.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

"Excess" of ideas

I seem to be suffering from an "excess" of ideas. This isn't surprising: I've read of full-time novelists who say they can't possibly write all the books they have in mind. And I am not a full-time designer by any means.

Time available makes a big difference. I sometimes feel obsessed with designing games, but don't spend so much time on it lately (perhaps because local playtesting is much harder to arrange than in the past). F&SF novelist Glenn Cook had a prolific output when he had a long (train) commute to his work at a GM assembly plant. When he moved, his production plummeted to about one novel a year.

At any rate, I have eight or less complete prototypes ready to be played for the first time, but I just don't seem to take time to play them. And while it is more important to complete a game than to start a new one, the most interesting time in design is the first few games I play (solo), and the first few times the game is played by other people. Because I develop my own games, I spend a lot of time toward the end fine-tuning rules and playtesting over and over. This is not great fun, far from it.

Even after a game has been published, there's time spent monitoring discussion groups and even slightly revising the rules. It all takes away from doing new games.

Recently I've not been helped by news that a man we occasionally playtest with, a graduate of my college, died of a heart attack at age 36. He had some health problems, but seemed to be doing well, this was a complete surprise.

My brother's big-deal retirement party is at the same time as WBC, so I may not be at WBC as long as usual.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Invasions and Migrations

Britannia is a game of migrations; Hispania is said to be a game of invasions . Rus, I once read, not only involves many invasions, but of such enormous strength that no one tries to fight them, but only tries to get out of the way. In Britannia the defenders try to get out of the way of the Roman invasion, the R-Bs may try to get out of the way of the Anglo-Saxon migrations, and the Anglo-Saxons may try to get out of the way of the Danish invasions. But most invasions and migrations are resisted strongly. (I have both of these games, but have not played them.)

Migrations are movements of entire peoples, usually over very long periods. They are slow, not cohesive, involving no single state and usually no single leader. Many of the "barbarian invasions" of the ancient Near East were migrations. So were most of the barbarian incursions into the Roman Republic and Empire until the third century, when we begin to learn the names of a few leaders and begin to have large confederations. It's really the fifth century when the leaders and confederations dominate, and we have invasions

Invasions are much quicker, sometimes with a single leader or coming from a single state (as when the Visigoths invaded the Roman Empire).

Ghengis Khan invaded; the Romans invaded Britain; the Anglo-Saxons migrated; the Vikings migrated at first, then later became invaders.

There are few of either type of incursion in Hellenia (which also has relatively short turns, something like 11 years each). Hence a game like Hellenia, though Brit-like, poses different challenges both to designers and players. Most of the major nations at the start of the game will be there at the end. How many nations present at the start of Brit are there at the end? Force preservation becomes more important in this type of game, than it is in Britannia (and it's important there at times).

I'm not sure where this all gets me, just ruminations.