Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Games on Facebook

Games on Facebook

I've tried a couple Facebook games and found them . . . absolutely tedious, pointless, just a time-killer (like many puzzles--and I don't like puzzles at all). But these aren't even challenging puzzles, they're much too easy. The impression I get from reading about such games is that they are pure time-wasters, with the added aspect of trying to persuade the player to recruit friends to be additional players, and to spend money. Many have that aspect I DESPISE in games, that you can spend money and gain advantages (just like CCGs, which I also despise as a player, though I have to admire the clever "racket").

Is this what games have come to, ways to kill time, and so boring that you spend real money to get ahead faster? Mindless... On the other hand, millions of people play them. But they're not the kind of games I want to design, for sure.

Unfortunately, some of the major purveyors of these games have allowed very shady practices to become common with the "free" games on Facebook and Myspace. See

One I played was Dragon Wars (I'm writing from memory of playing a couple months ago). There appears to be no way to lose, you choose quests that you know you can win. The "recruit your friends" angle is strong. On the other hand there isn't the obvious "spend money" angle.

I also tried Crazy Planets (again, a while ago, I think I'm recalling the title correctly). This game involved a little skill, as you had to judge what angle to shoot or throw to kill the enemy, but it was Very Simple. And Very Tedious. Perhaps more playing would have revealed more depth, though it seems unlikely. You could accumulate points to get better weapons, or (IIRC) you could buy them with real money.

What a waste. I am not an addictive type of personality, maybe you need to be to enjoy these games?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Dislike of Losing a Turn

Many board games of the past included an "opponent loses turn" card. I have learned recently that many people strongly dislike a "lose turn" card or any other mechanism that causes them to lose a turn. Gamers today often "hate" to lose a turn, and are less likely to play a game with that possibility. Why? 30 years ago "lose turn" was regarded as part of the competition of a game, just another way to achieve a goal. Today many people have grown up with video games where they're constantly active, and strongly dislike not being able to do anything. In some cases, one of their primary motivations for playing the game is to DO something, and when they lose a turn they cannot do anything.

Further, games are entertainment, for most people. People today are much less likely to accept frustration as part of their entertainment than they were 30 years ago. "Instant gratification" and "convenience" and the "Easy Button" have changed expectations. People are likely to quit any activity they find temporarily frustrating.

When people are focused on being active and not on winning and losing (you can't lose a traditional one-player video game), it's a different experience entirely. They're not so concerned with succeeding, they're concerned with DOING something (passing the time). Similarly we have a dislike of "down time" in board and card games, even though, for the more cerebrally inclined, that "down time" gives players opportunity to *think*. Because so many modern games don't require deep thought, players don't use the time to think the way people would have 30 years ago. My guess is that intuition (which doesn't take much time) is more often used in all walks of life today; certainly, when a person isn't doing their job, they're more inclined to rely on intuition than logic.

Whether you think this way or not--as an older generation person I don't--as a designer you have to take this into account. If you choose to design a game that includes down time, lost turns, and a need to spend time thinking about what you're going to do, you necessarily limit your market.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Branding, Games, and Films

You probably know how important branding has been for decades, but you may not realize how much more important it has become in the past several years. Branding is becoming very important in all game markets.

There are several reasons for this. First, the influence of branding on purchases is itself stronger than ever, and this includes all kinds of purchases. For example, Pat Lawlor, a famous pinball game designer, says “In America for the last, oh, say 20 to 25 years, kids are mercilessly marketed to. Then they become adults with those values. We now raise everyone to believe that a well known corporate ‘thing’ is far superior to a less known item.”

Lawlor describes a scientific study. I quote from the report I discovered on the Internet:

Children tasted 5 pairs of identical foods and beverages in packaging from McDonald’s and matched but unbranded packaging and were asked to indicate if they tasted the same or if one tasted better.... children preferred the tastes of foods and drinks if they thought they were from McDonald’s. Moderator analysis found significantly greater effects of branding among children with more television sets in their homes and children who ate food from McDonald’s more often.

In other words, even though the food was identical to taste, children tended to prefer the food with the McDonald’s brand on the package.

So for pinball machines, Lawlor says, “right now we take the easy road to sales and tie in with the well-known item. For the consuming public, it works (and fools them) every time.” (http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=21644) This is a triumph of advertising, or perhaps of capitalism. We see this in many other spheres, for example in retail clothing, where a factory can make the same clothes for two companies, yet one company will charge far more to consumers because their brand is well-known. (Think “designer clothes” or that most inane of phrases, “designer games”.)

Second, people are more distrustful of products in general–think of the nationwide hysteria that often arises from the latest death or injury from bad food or badly-designed products. Combine this with the conditioning Lawler talks about, and people *trust* well-known brands (even when a well-known brand, like Tylenol, can invite mal-doers such as the Tylenol poisoner of years ago).

People also depend on brands because they’re less able to judge otherwise. The belief in magic and the supernatural, which seems to be much stronger now than in the past, may contribute to this. Recalling Arthur C. Clarke’s dictum that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, we can suggest that “any technology consumers do not understand seems like magic.” Figuring out which hammer or rake is best, is probably easier than figuring out which cell phone or computer is best. So people depend more on brand names.

Branding in film is expressed in tie-ins, sequels, and remakes. Movies are often made based on well-known books, comic books, and games. The idea is that the well-known brand will help bring an audience to the new film. People are more likely to go see a sequel to a well-known film than to see an unknown film. And even remakes are more likely to be better attended, because some people remember the original. In contrast, it’s more expensive to successfully market a completely new property.

Game sequels are very common in the video game industry, with the excuse that as technology improves, the games will improve (well, sometimes...). Sequels are “safe”, because the market is already established for the brand, be it Halo or Civilization or Metal Gear Solid. It’s not only in the video game world with its sequel-itis that we see the power of branding in games. “Expansions” for games (board and video) are much more common now than 30 years ago. This may derive partly from including less in the first game than we used to, but it’s also because people are more likely to buy a known quantity. Sequels are much less common in tabletop games, though we do see several games marketed that use the same basic systems, and there’s an entire body of games using the “Settlers of Catan” brand.

Why do the Final Fantasy games share that name, even though some have nothing in common with others? Because “Final Fantasy” is one of the strongest brands in video gaming. Why is Blizzard so successful in the video game market? Mostly because they take all the time they need to make their games, but also because their name is such a strong brand that people will buy their games because they were made by Blizzard. Of course, Blizzard has also produced strong game brands such as Warcraft, Diablo, and Starcraft. The MMO World of Warcraft is itself an expression of the power of branding, with its setting derived from a series of three standalone video games.

Many games are “based on” well-known films and books (and even other games). Unfortunately, games based on movies, whether video or tabletop, have a deservedly poor reputation, in part because so many are produced in insufficient time so that they can be published when the movie is released.

Few movies are based on real tabletop games. Nonetheless, a “Monopoly” film is being made, as well as “Battleship” and others, even “Candyland”! These will be “tentpole” movies with a “big immersive experience”! (http://www.collider.com/2009/08/06/exclusive-hasbro-ceo-brian-goldner-video-interview-monopoly-candy-land-battleship-stretch-armstrong-more/ ) This is part of what might be called “extreme branding”. According to Mike Gray, senior product acquisition person for games at Hasbro, Hasbro bought half of the Discovery Channel so that they can make TV series upon which they can then base games. Hasbro is also coming out with games using the name of their well-known brands, for example Sorry Sliders (much more dexterity shuffleboard than Sorry) and Battleship Galaxies. Why do we see so many versions of Stratego, Risk and Axis & Allies? Name recognition (branding): “Risk Godstorm” is going to be bought by many more people than “Godstorm”, “Stratego Legends” will sell much better than “Legends”, just as “Sorry Sliders” will sell much better than “Sliders”. (The other major reason is that people already know how to play the wargames, they only have to learn variations, so they are much less likely to take the game back to the store because they can’t or won’t figure it out.)

It is much easier, thanks to improved technology, to self-publish games of all types than it was 25 years ago. Consequently, there are a lot more games on the market. Branding helps differentiate your game from one that no one has ever heard of. Hasbro can spend four million dollars in advertising to try to establish an unbranded toy or game, or they can make something with a known name and associations and save a lot of that money.

Can a beginning designer take advantage of brands? It’s very unlikely. Companies own those brands (in most cases), and they’ll decide for themselves what games to use with them. They’re quite likely to rely on someone with a strong record of well-made games.

In my own experience, my game Britannia (1986 etc.) is a brand, but it’s a brand others can use freely. “Britannia-like” will be a phrase used to describe a game that uses similar systems, even if it isn’t mentioned by the designers/publishers. Those who know Britannia will have an immediate idea of what the game is like, and that familiarity may help sales. That’s what branding does.

(This originally appeared on The Spiteful Critic, 18 Nov. Click on the title of this post.) http://www.spitefulcritic.com/2009/11/branding-games-and-films/

Saturday, November 21, 2009

What does "game developer" mean?

(This piece, originally on Gamasutra in March 09 (you can click the title of this post to go to it) engendered 89 comments, many of them quite out of line with reality (both the reality of what I actually wrote, and the reality of the importance of programming to games).)

As we all know, words can create the wrong perceptions. As far as I can see, the word "developer," applied to games, confuses the heck out of people who do not actually create games for a living.

For example, recently I spoke with some newly-minted college instructors who teach students to make games.

One of them told me, "Person X says he doesn't know anything about game development." Person X is a major official in the International Game Developers Association!

Later, I heard, "Person Y doesn't know game development." Person Y is heavily involved in game creation education, and ought to know something about game creation, surely, but comes from the art side.

Upon reflection, I realized that the speakers were equating "game development" with computer programming.

But is "game development," as a term used within the industry, the equivalent of computer programming for games, or is it something much broader? When creation of an electronic game was a one-person endeavor, back in the 70s and 80s, every game developer had to be a programmer. But this "one hero per game" style practically ended around 1990 -- so long ago that many college students were born after that date -- as most games became too big to be done by one person.

Game Development Is Not Programming

Obviously, you can know a lot about games in a variety of ways, and not know much about making games. We get students all the time at my school who think they'll be good at creating games simply because they like to play games a lot. Not so, bucko.

On the other hand, you can be an important part of a team that creates video games, and know next to nothing about computer programming.

Nowadays, many more artists than programmers work on electronic games. And there are teams of game designers, level designers, sound people, narrative writers, and so forth working on big games.

Programming is the minority endeavor. So why do we still call it “game development," have a flagship magazine named Game Developer, a flagship Game Developers Conference, and a flagship organization called the International Game Developers Association?

Here are the problems. First, to people who don’t work for video game companies, a developer is a programmer, someone who codes software. Using the term "game developer" to encompass all of the team that makes video games is quite confusing to computer-knowledgeable people outside the industry.

Next, to the non-electronic game industry, a developer is a person who polishes and finishes a game design for publication -- sometimes the designer, sometimes someone else.

Finally, the general populace rarely knows what a “developer” is in any context.

The Difference

For almost all video games, programming is a necessary evil, something that can only result in negatives for the game, not make it outstanding. What makes a video game outstanding is, first, the design, the gameplay or other interaction; second, the look and feel of the game, which is a combination of design and art.

Good programming can certainly contribute, but mostly, programming is there to implement the vision of the designers and artists, and is a fairly mechanical contribution to the game. But if it's poorly done, it can ruin the game. Further, patches can typically fix programming problems, but rarely fix fundamental design problems.

Today, many of the steps programmers used to have to do manually are now done by software tools, but we still have a long way to go. Ideally, we'd like to be able to tell a computer-based tool how we want a game to work, provide it with art, and it would write the software.

Game engines, a form of CASE tool (Computer Aided Software Engineering), take us in this direction, simplifying programming by (in effect) doing some of it themselves. Constantly, people are trying to write tools that will make programmers less and less necessary, less and less important, in everyday endeavors -- though it will always be true that if we want to improve computers, we’ll need human programmers.

We know there is creativity in programming. But once we get past the highly entrepreneurial stage of an industry (which we have), too much creativity in programming causes problems. In games we want programming to be reliable, solid, fast -- mechanical, not creative. (See Cowboy Coders) for more.)

On the other hand, programmers tend to be paid more than the other folks involved in game creation, so it’s clearly a skill very much in demand. Evidently, it’s easier to find good artists or designers than good programmers (supply and demand drive salaries). Perhaps the high valuation of programmers goes back to the bane of so many games, elementary errors: many of those elementary errors are programming errors.

The Core

So what is the core of game development? It's not programming and it's not development, folks -- it's design and art. Programming is a support function, not the heart of an electronic game. And if we look into the world of non-electronic games, we have design very much dominant, and we have some art, but we have no programming at all.

So why do we call ourselves “game developers”? We can continue to be Humpty Dumpty and use a term that often confuses those outside the industry, or we can adjust to the change in reality -- that programming is no longer the heart of game creation. Why not Game Creators Magazine, Game Creators Conference, International Game Creators Association?

Problems in Education

This term and the confusion around it affects education and influences young people. To go back to my original anecdote, it also influences people who teach game creation. These people equate game development with programming, yet they're teaching a generation that tends not to enjoy programming!

Unfortunately, game development programs in colleges and universities are often started by programmers, who have no interest in art and little interest in design (and sometimes, little interest in games!).

In many less-well-known schools, computer programming is fading away as a topic of interest for the millennial generation, or has already been dropped; game development is grabbed as a life-saver for those who want to teach programming but lack students. Unfortunately, these game development curricula are more than fifteen years out of date when they start.

My own experience of this is that when programmers start game development programs, those programs are usually a disaster for artists and designers. Game development education should be in the hands of gamers who are teachers, not of teachers who are programmers.

If you're a student planning to pursue game creation as a career, and you don’t want to be a programmer, find out whether the school you have in mind runs the programming version of game development, or the broader "game creation" version that accommodates non-programmers.

Problems in Perception of Art

Many video game makers are disturbed that video games are not seen as "art" by the general public. John Sharp recently discussed the difference between "mechanical art" (works of the hands) and "liberal art" (works of the mind).

I think video games are seen as mechanical art by the general public, because they are thought to be primarily achievements of programming, which is generally seen as a mechanical art. (In contrast, the non-electronic game industry is not concerned about whether such games are art: they are obviously works of the mind -- they have no programming.)

If we want video games to be seen as liberal art, we need to educate people that programming is a support function, not the principal activity of game making. One way to do this is to call the activity "game creation," not "game development." Why shoot ourselves in the foot?

We use "game developer" as a title out of habit -- a habit now outdated by changes in how video games are made. Why not switch to "game creator," which will cause less confusion to computer people, cause less confusion to wannabe game creators, and even cause less confusion to the populace at large, as well as encouraging people to think of video games as art?

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Miscellaneous Thoughts

Miscellaneous thoughts:

How many free-to-play online games that ask players to pay for additional features are NOT avatar based? (RTS, for example, are not avatar-based.) Something between few and none, I should think. So, are players mostly paying to improve "themselves", their avatar?


AAA video games are "Big Meals", free-to-play and casual stuff are "snacks". So how many people eat lots of big meals any more? A lot more snacking and catch-as-you-can eating happens.


Twitter is less attractive to those who are used to working alone (tabletop game designers), more attractive to those who work in groups (video game designers).


I tend to want to simplify games, which tends to be "anti-atmospherical." (Atmosphere is the flavor, the "chrome", but the kind that is tacked-on and doesn't alter gameplay. When it guides the construction of gameplay, it's theme.)

I make representations, not simulations.


Mike Gray (Hasbro) says the problem with tabletop games is that someone must read the rules. The further problem with wargames is not only the rules, but that there are "too many decisions". People who are quite happy to play games that don't require too many decisions at once, are "Bewildered by wargames".


I saw a question online, "does intuition or theory drive game design?" Neither. Playtest results drive game design, at least, the simple games that Reiner Knizia designs, and that I'm experimenting with.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Interaction in Games

Interaction in games

This arises from class discussions, and as with all such initial attempts, is very much subject to revision. Of course, there's no "right" way to categorize something this complex in such a small space.

In a traditional solo video game you're actually interacting with the designer.

In a tabletop or "newer" video game, you're interacting with other people through situations devised by the designer.

Interacting with the designer: (Often called PvE, Player vs. Environment)
Talking with NPCs
Collecting information
Avoiding obstacles and hazards (which may behave sentiently (with intelligence) or not)
Con them (bluffing)
Blast/smash them
Clever other methods (drive cattle in front of you)
(Cutscenes–but no interactivity)

Interacting with other people (part of the game, not something the game leads to):
Negotiation (persuade or dissuade)
Direct Conflict (PvP, Player vs. Player)
"Beating them to the punch" (in races, collection of objects, as well as in attacking)
Kill-crush-destroy opposing entities
Physical contests
Cooperation (typical of group RPGs)
Bidding against/auctioning
Drafting (selecting the best set of useful items, getting something before someone else does)
Anticipation of what someone else will do (could be tied to “beating them to the punch”)
"Bragging rights"
Telling bad jokes, charades, drawing pictures, and many other kinds of party game activities
Acting/pretending (lying) (bluffing)
Being annoying
Indirect interaction (you cause forces other than yours do do something to harm another player's)(e.g. via "Event cards")

Really indirect conflict--you cause forces other than yours to do something to harm other forces that might be helpful to an opponent

In a sense, a great part of interaction with other people could be characterized as “make the right choice before the other person does”.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Using the best format

When I want to learn history, I read a good book about it, I don't play a game. When I want a good story, I don't play a game, I read a novel (or watch a movie, though the stories are more shallow, less detailed, than in novels--but they take less effort). When I want an interactive and interesting conflict to resolve, I play a game.

If I want an interactive story--but I don't--then the best place might be a video game, though I would do a tabletop RPG first in that case. If I want to "make my own stories", quite a different thing than being fed through an interactive story, then I play a tabletop game.

If you want the best experiences of each type, you choose the best format.

I do the same with computer software: I don't try to do columns of numbers in a word processor (though it can be done), I use a spreadsheet program. I don't try to draw diagrams with a spreadsheet (though I can), or even with Powerpoint, I use a drawing or diagramming program. If I want to play a video game, I'm not going to find it in that drawing program. And so on.

But there are lots of people who play a game to learn history, because they don't want to read a book. And there are people who play games for stories, usually because they want to have something to do during the story. Just as there are people who make drawings with Powerpoint.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Movies from Video Games

Reading an article in the latest Gameinformer magazine about the poor record of movies that derive from games, my reaction was "that's not surprising." Games aren't a good storytelling medium, which makes a successful movie less likely to derive from a game. In essence you have to make up the story for the movie because there isn't much of one in the game--the game is more a setting than a story. Video gamers, when they say a game has a really good story, are comparing to other games, not to novels or even movies (stories in novels tend to be better than stories in film, I think--there's more "time" to develop the story). Games put the player "in" the story (ideally, though often not in practice), while movies have the viewer passively consume the story. Comics, on the other hand, ARE a storytelling medium, somewhere between novels and movies. The reader has more work to do in a comic than the viewer does in a movie, but less work to do than in a novel. While we're finally getting some excellent movies deriving from comics--it's taken a *long* time--we're much less likely to get very good movies deriving from video games.

Which hasn't stopped Hasbro from greenlighting tentpole movies for Monopoly (Ridley Scott?!) and Battleship, among others. But those are non-video games that don't pretend to tell much of a story, so I think everyone will accept that the studio has made up a story to fit the brand's vague setting. For video game movies there are the fanboys who want the movie to be "just like the game", and that's not going to work well owing to differences in the media. No movie can possibly be "just like Battleship", so "no problemo."

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Having fun with a new game

Nowadays I often design games for other people to play, that I'm not so keen on playing myself. This is something that separates some experienced designers from novices, as novices usually only design the game(s) they would like to play. I tend to like games with some depth of strategy that might take several hours to play. I studied games to become a better player. I am not a fan of heavily complex rules, but neither do I naturally gravitate to simple games. Yet the market very much trends toward shorter, simpler games. And the market reflects "the cult of the new", as people don't expect to play a game more than a few times before they move on to another.

In particular, I tend to design more "filler" games and short games than I might play. Some I enjoy playing pretty well, some I'm not so keen on.

But there is one game amongst the new ones that I really enjoy playing solo or with others, though I'm not sure how marketable it is--not because people won't like PLAYing it, but it's a question of whether you can get people to BUY the game.

The game originated after a publisher talked about presenting Dragon Rage (which is in process of being republished from 1982) as an introductory hex wargame. This caused me to think about designing another introductory hex wargame, but this time with a science fiction rather than fantasy theme.

The standard scenario is brothers of a king who has died in suspicious circumstances, each proclaiming the other brother(s) to be a patricide. It's generally a two player game, but can be played in this version by more than two.

The ships set up face down, one at a time, then are revealed as they fight or move faster than one hex (revealed to prove that they can). So there's a considerable element of "fog of war". Normal forces vary with scenario, 15-25 inch-square pieces (with numbers usually going down as the game progresses). Each player has a prince and a non-movable asteroid stronghold. If either is lost, he loses the game. The prince gives a morale bonus in battle, but may have to expose himself to danger to do so.

The "board" is modular 5 by 5 large-hex sections with varying "terrain" which fit together in a great many ways ("geomorphic"). There's a separate 8" by 11" battle board for the battles, which usually involve fewer than five ships but have seen as many as 32 in one battle--nearly the entire forces during a two-player game. Combat uses the venerable "Valley of the Four Winds" method, a two-dice roll to hit, all or nothing, with defender firing first and then alternating individual ship firing (if you die before you shoot, you don't shoot). Better ships have better chances to hit, and better defense modifiers. Ships also have a range and a speed (strategic and tactical the same). Some can go into galactic dust clouds/nebulae, some cannot.

What's continued my interest in solo play is creating scenarios for the game. I have the "rebels vs. the empire" scenario (no, no Deathstar), the "Barbarians" scenario (light ships coming in uncoordinated bunches from the galactic rim), the "Annihilators" scenario (huge death-dealing machines that burn off planets), and the "Wormhole Invaders" scenario (aliens suddenly issue from Black Holes!). Most of these have a smaller version (two 5 by 5 hex boards) and a larger (four boards).

It's also interesting to watch people play, especially those who aren't used to board wargames. There's a tendency for players to sit around doing nothing, which is OK *if* they have the preponderance of economic value. It is not just a battle game, it is a war, so there is an economy, and if you control more of the valuable areas, you're likely to win in the long run.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Fundamental differences, video games and tabletop games

The two most fundamental differences--which are still differences of degree, not kind--between video games and non-electronic games are

1) it is much easier to provide a semblance of opposition with a computer than with non-electronic means, hence video games are traditionally for one player against the computer (interactive puzzles), and non-electronic games are traditionally for two or more players in opposition

2) for video games, up to a point of complexity, no one has to read the rules. For even the simplest non-electronic games, someone must read and understand the rules. (For toys, no one needs to read the rules, because there are no rules or objectives, just objects to play with. The mass non-electronic market is often called the "toy and game" market because the ideal is a very simple game with minimal rules, or an actual toy.)

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Skewed surveys

So many surveys are crippled. I've downloaded some summary results for a survey arranged by http://www.gamesindustry.com/company/542/service/1762
The results are interesting, but woefully misleading because they repeatedly quote percentage of population playing games, yet limit their "population" in two ways. The first isn't unreasonable--at least 8 years old. The second is entirely unreasonable--they only count people who have Internet access. Insofar as many forms of video games do not require Internet access, why this limitation? To make the numbers sound more impressive?

Lest you say, "everyone has Internet access", NOT EVEN CLOSE. Many many people don't even own a computer, many because they don't want to, some because they can't afford it (yes, even now when computers are so much cheaper). Some of these people may play games on phones or on friends' computers/consoles, yet why they're excluded entirely is beyond me. This also skews the comparative results of this international survey, as I'm supposing the percentage of people who have Internet access varies somewhat from country to country.

So the results are interesting for comparative purposes, but the overall percentages are mostly useless.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Story-telling in history

(We'll get to history soon, but not immediately.) I've had interesting reading experiences lately. I rarely read novels any more (lack of time), but during an always-dangerous trip to the library recently I picked up two of the Dune novels written by Frank Herbert's son Brian and Kevin J. Anderson. I loved Dune, though not so much some of Herbert's sequels (in some sense, it was a novel that should not have had any sequel).

One of the post-Frank sequels was The Butlerian Jihad. What a great setting for a novel, I thought, the time when the crusade against "thinking machines" led to a galaxy without computers even as good as those we have today. Yet after 80 pages I had to give up, something I very rarely do with a novel. The story was unimaginative, lifeless, drab, just remarkably mediocre. I thought, "maybe Brian just isn't a novelist, but Anderson should do better", since he has lots of experience writing novels including juveniles and even Star Wars novels. But there was just nothing there.

So I switched to a history book, Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West by Tom Holland. This tells the story of the Persian Empire and (beginning about halfway through) its attacks on Greece. And remarkably enough, this was a much better story, much better told, than Butlerian Jihad, even though I knew the overall story pretty well. Holland is squarely in the "heroic Greek resistance to the East" faction even as he sympathizes with and compliments the Persians for their achievements. Holland is not a scholar, but this appears to be a very scholarly work. Yet he tells a great story with scrupulous accuracy. (For example, many do not know that more Thebans and Thespians than Spartans died on the last day at Thermopylae. And the story of the ultimately suicidal run by a Greek to announce the victory at Marathon is just that, a story, though the entire Athenian army got back to Athens remarkably quickly to protect it against possible Persian fleet action.)

Next I read Jared Diamond's The Third Chimpanzee. Diamond is well-known for his fascinating Guns, Germs and Steel, which attempts to scientifically answer the question of why civilization arose in the Middle East and later in other places, and why Europeans came to dominate the world. Third Chimpanzee is an earlier book that asks how humans have arisen from chimpanzees, and how humans are similar, and different, from other animals. (I often wonder how someone who rejects the idea of evolution can read such a book; such people must ignore a great deal of writing by scientists, I suppose.) Diamond is not as intent on telling a story as the author of Persian Fire, but he is extraordinarily clear and readable, taking you along with him on a journey of discovery and "ratiocination" (my word) while mixing in his own fascinating experiences in New Guinea and the South Pacific. And part of the book is the predecessor of Guns Germs and Steel, if you're not inclined to read both books.

Somewhere in there I started John Julius Norwich's The Middle Sea, a history of the Mediterranean. I enjoyed reading his history of Byzantium and history of Venice. Norwich, too, is a story-teller as well as historian (and does not claim to be a scholar), but this time there were too many factual errors (or perhaps cut corners) and I set it aside in favor of Diamond. I'll try again sometime.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

One of those oddities

When I was a kid, people often said "kitty-corner" instead of "diagonal". Now you hardly ever hear the first phrase.

"Up, down, sideways" is the equivalent phrase to "kitty-corner", yet nowadays people still say it rather than the formal term "orthogonal". In fact, most people don't know what orthogonal means when they first encounter it. So in game rules I use the formal term, but explain at first use what it means, something I don't have to do with "diagonal".

Who knows why this different treatment exists. Language is funny, and lots of it is a matter of chance.

Monday, September 21, 2009

What do games amount to?

Aki Jarvinen’s doctoral dissertation, “Games without Frontiers: Theories and Methods for Game Studies and Design,” available on the Web in English (PDF downloadable via http://acta.uta.fi/english/teos.php?id=11046), painstakingly identifies and describes the elements of games, what games are composed of. This is beyond the scope of a beginner’s guide to game design, though worth reading. Instead, I’d like to try to categorize what players actually DO in games, in simplest terms. I’m dividing this into two parts, first the “system” activities having to do with the mechanics of the game, then the “psychological” activities having to do with what the mind of the player is doing in relation to other players.

Remember that one of the best guides to game design is the question, “what is the player going to do”. I’m trying to list the fundamental things that players do, both mechanically (“Systems”) and psychologically when there is more than one player.

Moreover, I’m going to restrict this to competitive games, rather than branch out into puzzles and other entertainments that are not games at all, by some definitions. Wii Fit, Wii Music, Tetris, Katamari Dimachy, and other single-player video “games” that are actually interactive puzzles or toys may not quite fit in, but I think in most cases they will.

The list includes the general activity, then some of the common variations. When we come down to it, most games are about just a few things–in no particular order.
And it must be said, there are many ways to organize this list, to choose subsidiary and not-subsidiary categories. It is certainly not definitive.
Where the mechanical systems of the game are concerned, “achieve a particular state” is the generalized version of what the player is doing. This is what the player does in relation to the systems of the game, not in relation to other players. Victory points are a generalized way of doing several different things at once. Sometimes the “state” is very simple, as in rock-paper-scissors where you want to make a pattern, such as paper to the opponent’s rock. I want to be more specific than that, though.

1. Get to a particular place (or avoid/leave it)
Get there fastest (a race) [player interaction may be missing]
Get any of your pieces to some place (Axis&Allies enemy capital)
Get a special piece there more times than opponent (football, hockey, many other team sports)
Get to end of the story (console RPGs)
Avoid or get out of a particular place
Connecting two or more points (Hex, Twixt, Attika, networking games) Could also be under patterns, below)
2. Collect something (many card games, many video games)(sometimes economic)
Find something (exploration) (Easter egg hunt)
It drops in your lap (draw a card)
Take it from someone else (Monopoly, some card games especially trick-taking)
Build something rather than get it elsewhere (the moon rocket in Civilization, or Wonders)
Don’t collect something (Old Maid, Hearts, etc.)
Get rid of everything (say, a hand of cards)
Building/construction games are a complex form of collection that some people might list as a separate category
3. Wipe someone or something out (Risk, shooters, checkers/draughts, bowling!)
Wipe out one thing—chess
Identify who or what you need to wipe out. Examples: Mafia (and any of its variants, such as Werewolf), Bang/Dodge City
Its opposite, avoid being wiped out, including defend some place by preventing an opponent from getting there (Atari Warlords, Tower Defense)
4. Create patterns in something (getting to a place could be seen as part of this!)
Patterns in piece location (this includes rock-paper-scissors, Tetris, many puzzle games)
Only your pieces (Tic-Tac-Toe), or yours plus opponent’s (rock-paper-scissors)
Patterns in relation to the “board” (Scrabble, Carcassonne)
Patterns of cards (related to sets–e.g. Canasta)
Drawings (Pictionary) and other representations such as maps
5. Recognize patterns in something
Recognize a drawing or other representation (drawing) of something (Pictionary)
6. Change something from one thing to another (could be seen as a subset of collection)
Frequently required in economic and construction games
7. Improve your capabilities. (Munchkin)
This is often subsidiary, a way to achieve something else. Common in RPGs, vehicle simulations, construction/management simulations, collectible card games. Yet in some games, such as RPGs, this is THE activity, not a means to another end.
8. Survive to keep going. Especially common in arcade games (which are generally unwinnable).
9. Design something (e.g., a warship in a 4X game)
Produce new instances of predefined objects (crafting, or "building something")
Design objects or processes (e.g., City of Heroes "Mission Architect", making choices when generating an RPG character)
10. Calculate probabilities. Can’t Stop, Cloud 9, Craps, and other “press your luck” games.
Some would say this is a natural and obvious concomitant of many other activities, but in these days of widespread innumeracy, it may make sense to list it separately.
Now we have the human/psychological side of what the player does, the interaction with other players. In many ways this is no different than what a general does in warfare. I am not including the fundamental processes necessary to play the game (such as, “understand the rules”), instead I'm looking for what the player is doing after he understands the game and game systems, to play the game.
1. Forecasting the intentions of others (“reading” the other player(s))
2. Persuading them to do something you want them to do (usually involves negotiation)
3. Disguising one’s own intentions (could be a subsidiary of persuasion, of negotiating)(bluffing) Poker, Balderdash, Stratego
4. Establish personal relationships with other players (which can also be seen as a subsidiary of negotiating, but you often want to do this even if there is no overt negotiation)
5. Discover/deduce information (not quite “collection”)
This could just as well be under "system", but often involves some understanding of and communication with other players.
6. Understand short- and long-term relationships and processes not strictly involved with how to play the game.
With that, we're getting into the general understanding of "playing a game", so I will stop there.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The direct and indirect approach to war

We were talking in design class about how to modify Risk to make it a better game, and the following came to mind.

It was said in the WWII era that the Germans felt the Americans fought in the pattern of American football. This is the "T" era, four yards and a cloud of dust, line up a big mass and crash your way through, with occasional passes: get more of everything and smash the enemy in their strongest position. (But there WAS some passing.)

The British traditionally use what B. H. Liddell-Hart called the "indirect approach"--there's a book with that title that I read about 40 years ago--which is much facilitated from/by the sea: choose the weak points of the enemy, send a sufficient force to achieve your objective (economy of force), ultimately defeat the enemy without having to confront his strongest force.

Some games seem to encourage one method or the other. For example, Risk is the "American method of war" game par excellence.

Britannia appears to be much more the British method. When people try to play the American method, they may kill a lot of armies, but they don't win the game. Sometimes I say this is playing Britannia as though it was a conquest game, which it is not. Force preservation is very important.

I occasionally wonder if I should have limited the "unlimited" stack size to maybe 5 or 6 armies, if that would make Brit even more the "British method" game. Certainly, I limit the max stack size in all of the successor games. The two-dice combat method might help too, making some attacks less risky.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The nine structural subsystems of any game

This originally appeared on GameCareerGuide, 17 Mar 09

The nine structural subsystems of any game

(or game-like activity), video or non-video

Lewis Pulsipher

A game can be thought of as a system (as in "systems analysis", for the computationally inclined). What I'm trying to achieve here is a list of the fundamental sub-systems that are necessarily a part of any game (excluding sports such as baseball or swimming). This list may help inexperienced designers, because if they think about all nine of these systems as they rough out their game, this will help them conceptualize and arrive at a playable idea.

We could discuss endlessly what is a game and what is not; let’s just recognize that, within your definitions of “game”, you can probably find an exception that doesn’t have all nine characteristics. I think that’s a function of definition rather than a failure of the analysis, but that must remain a matter of opinion. If one of these systems is completely missing, you might have a toy or puzzle, but not a game.

There are many examples “on the edges”, such as Katamari Damacy. To me, Katamari Damacy is not a game, Solitaire (the card “game”) is not a game, because there’s no conflicting interest, no active opposition guided by intelligence–they are more like a puzzle or toy. But both of these activities fit the Nine Structures framework.

I want a framework that will help a designer think about games. Some people, in listing fundamentals of games, discuss "state" in considerable detail. I've tried to avoid "state" and "state-changes" as much as possible, simply because I don't think that an organization dominated by state is very useful to an inexperienced designer. "State-change", in particular, seems to lump an awful lot together in one pot. My ultimate goal is to have something that will be useful to inexperienced designers, and to be able to expand each category to exhaustively list alternatives within each structure. I want designers to be able to treat the extended list as a sort of checklist, to help them make sure they’ve thought about all the vital aspects of their game early in the process.

I've tried to list these subsystems in an apparently-logical order, but every one is just as fundamental as every other one.

Here is the list, followed by brief explanations and some examples:

1. Theme/History/Story/Emotion/Image.

2. Player Interaction rules.

3. Objective/victory conditions.

4. “Data storage”. (Information Management)

5. Sequencing.

6. Movement/Placement.

7. Information availability.

8. Conflict resolution/interaction of game entities.

9. "Economy" (resource acquisition).

Sometimes the system is assumed, or the choice is to have "none", but still a decision has been made about the category. For example, in Tic-Tac-Toe (Noughts and Crosses) there is no acquisition of resources, but it still has an economy of "unlimited pieces"--it could have a way to gain resources, and there are variations where you do. Another example: a very abstract game has no theme/history/story, but the designer chose to take that approach, nonetheless.

Theme/History/Story/Emotion/Image. These are listed in order of common usage, not necessarily importance. Story can be absolutely vital to a role-playing game, but is essentially absent from many games. Historical games use history to a greater or lesser extent. Many Euro-style boardgames have a theme that may or may not have affected the construction of the game. And we can still have abstract games without anything related to theme. Many video game designers want to design “an immersive experience” to elicit one or more emotions from players. And even a single image in one’s mind, a scene or “movie clip”, can characterize a game.

Player Interaction rules (and number of players). Is it a cooperative game, or a game like Doom (the boardgame) where one player controls the “badguys” and the others cooperate against him or her, or a competitive game (typical), or is there some other relationship between and amongst the players?

How many separate interests are there in the game? How many sides? Some “games” have only one and so may be more properly be called puzzles or toys. Some have several sides (many boardgames, some online RTS). Some have just two sides but several interests because there is more than one player per side (Team Fortress, etc.).

This subsystem determines how the players interact with one another. For example, in a multi-sided game, are negotiations allowed? Physical intimidation? (The answer to that is almost always "No", but it is a decision, and I have seen games that involved physical intimidation...).

Objective/victory conditions. In other words, what causes one player to win, or at least causes the game to end, or is the goal ever-pursued but perhaps never reached? The game ending can be arbitrary ("play five rounds"), yet there will usually be a way to determine the winner at that point. Role-playing games have no end, and usually don’t have winners, but do have objectives: usually to acquire experience points and (magic) items/skills/perks.

“Data storage”. (Information Management) Something has to record the current state of the game. This is often a board/map. In Tic-Tac-Toe, it's the nine-box layout. In card games, the layout of the cards on the table, and the cards themselves, store data. Pieces can store data, in particular the traditional cardboard pieces of wargames that contain movement, attack, and defense values. A detailed map stores LOTS of data. A computer can store vast amounts of data, of course, though early computers were very limited in data storage, which in turn limited the games.

Sequencing. In what order do things happen? "Simultaneously" can be the answer, but taking turns is the norm in non-video games.

Movement/Placement. The most typical “piece” in a computer game is an “avatar”, a figure/character representing the player. Players generally manipulate something, most often pieces on a board or cards in their hand or on the table. Chess and checkers have movement rules, the Asiatic game Go has placement rules. Movement/placement one at a time is the norm in traditional games, where in wargames a player can typically move all his pieces in one go. Even paper-rock-scissors has movement (as well as sequencing) rules.

Information availability. What information about the game is available to all players? In traditional boardgames all information is available, but in card games information is largely hidden. Five-card Draw poker has a lower level of information availability than Texas Hold 'Em, because in the latter you see some of the cards "held" by the other players.

Conflict resolution/interaction of game entities. What happens when an action of a player leads to a conflict? This can be as simple as in Tic-Tac-Toe (conflict is not allowed, you can't place your mark where the other player already has one), or it can be simple as in chess (when a conflict occurs, the moving player always wins). In checkers you jump a man in a conflict. In Go you surround stones to capture them.

You might prefer to say thatTic-Tac-Toe has no conflict rules, that movement rules govern where markers can be placed; but a choice has still been made, that there will be no conflict. It is quite possible to have a game without conflict, such as a race game or many card games (Solitaire) and Euro boardgames.

"Economy" (resource acquisition). How are new pieces/capabilities acquired? Some games have no way to acquire these, but that is still a decision made about the game. Even games that don't appear to have an Economy have some elements, for example, in chess you can promote ("queen") a pawn, and in checkers you can make a king. Many modern games, especially many computer games, are largely economic/resource management games.

In video games there are very often ways to obtain new capabilities, whether it involves mining resources and building factories, or just picking up medkits and weapons that sit in convenient spots.

Am I sure there are just these nine? No, but I haven’t added to the number in more than a year, though I have revised it. I also have a list of 20 questions that designers ought to think about, but which can generally be ignored when creating the framework of a game. This will have to wait for another time.

Very useful for learners is to take simple games and change one of the structural choices. This is especially easy with traditional games that “everyone knows” such as Tic-Tac-Toe, Chess, Monopoly, Risk. For example, the well-known hidden-movement chess variant “Kriegspiel” is a case of changing from perfect information to very limited information for the players (system 7). The Monopoly variant where someone on Free Parking collects miscellaneous fees that would normally go to the bank is an example of changing the economy of the game slightly (system 9). Increase the Tic-Tac-Toe board to four by four, and let a player win with four in a row or four in a square, and you have a much better game: you’ve changed the data storage and the victory conditions (systems 4 and 3).

Now for examples.

Traditional games are almost always turn-based in sequence, with one piece moving. Think chess (including oriental versions), checkers, Go, Monopoly, Parcheesi. Certain genres of video games are almost always simultaneous movement (real-time), such as most shooters (Worms Armageddon is an exception of sorts).

How do video games fit? Most “shooter” video games follow the same pattern:

1. Theme/History/Story/Emotion/Image. Usually, the story is an excuse to get to the action, though there are shooters with deeper stories that actually affect gameplay. Many “elicit an emotion” games are at least partly shooters.

2. Player Interaction rules (and number of players). Generally these are one-person games, though now we’re getting more cooperative/buddy versions. Many have a multi-player (but two-sided) version as well. There are rarely player interaction rules other than common courtesy. Some players try to install their own rules (such as the disdain of “camping”), even though “camping” is perfectly within the rules.

3. Objective/victory conditions. The objective is usually to kill as much as possible before you’re killed, but there can be overall game victory conditions.

4. “Data storage”. (Information Management) The computer/console provides the storage and management; how the software addresses the details is usually hidden from anyone not on the production team.

5. Sequencing. Almost always, shooters are simultaneous movement (real-time).

6. Movement/Placement. Almost always, the player has an avatar that moves in ways analogous to the real world. The difference can come in whether the character can jump, swim, fly, etc.

7. Information availability. Most video games involve much hidden information–one of the great virtues of electronic games as compared to non-electronic. In a shooter, you rarely have information that your avatar cannot reasonably see or hear, though there may be scanners or other devices that detect through walls and around corners. (Exception: many games show you, after you’re killed, where your killer was when he attacked you.)

8. Conflict resolution/interaction of game entities. Shooting. And perhaps melee.

9. "Economy" (resource acquisition). In most shooters you can find food, weapons, and medical kits. In some, when you score enough you gain additional “lives”, or can purchase better weapons. You may be able to despoil the bodies or the installations of your vanquished enemies, as well.

Let’s try a simple electronic game: Pac-Man

1. Theme/History/Story/Emotion/Image. The game is often credited as the first to have a character and there is a story of sorts, though once again the story is mostly an excuse for action.

2. Player Interaction rules (and number of players). One player vs. the computer.

3. Objective/victory conditions. Make it through all the levels.

4. “Data storage”. (Information Management). The game uses a square grid, more or less, as a “board”.

5. Sequencing. Simultaneous.

6. Movement/Placement. The player has one “piece” which can move constantly. The opposition has up to four ghosts, though not always all of them at once.

7. Information availability. Virtually all information is available!

8. Conflict resolution/interaction of game entities. Pac-Man eats dots, ghosts eat Pac-man, Pac-man can eat ghosts for a limited time after consuming special dots.

9. "Economy" (resource acquisition). Score points to gain lives.

The video game Civilization IV is not much different from most board wargames:

1. Theme/History/Story/Emotion/Image. Rise from barbarism to the moon. Conquer the world or persuade it to acknowledge your nation’s superiority.

2. Player Interaction rules (and number of players). Multiple separate interests and sides. Negotiation is possible.

3. Objective/victory conditions. As with some boardgames, there are multiple ways to win, such as flying to the moon/stars or conquest.

4. “Data storage”. (Information Management). Civ uses a square grid, which a player can actually make visible, to regulate movement. The computer keeps track of many details, which of course is why Civ the computer game includes far more detail than any boardgame.

5. Sequencing. Turn-based.

6. Movement/Placement. One side moves all of its pieces in a turn, many pieces can be in one area at a time, move into an enemy-occupied area to attack it.

7. Information availability. Thanks to the computer, much of the information is hidden, though Civ provides various aids and warnings to give you some idea of your standing in the world.

8. Conflict resolution/interaction of game entities. When pieces move into an enemy-occupied area, a fight occurs. Unlike most boardgames, the combat method involves one unit at a time on each side even though many may be in the area.

9. "Economy" (resource acquisition). Much of Civ revolves around acquisition of resources that enable technological research and construction of a great variety of pieces.

What about a non-conflict game, say Tetris.

1. Theme/History/Story/Emotion/Image. None.

2. Player Interaction rules (and number of players). One player vs. the computer, which probably administers things purely at random–it is not a conflicting interest.

3. Objective/victory conditions. The objective is to score points by making rows of blocks; but the game has no ending other than ultimate failure of the player’s efforts.

4. “Data storage”. (Information Management). The square-grid “board” and the computer.

5. Sequencing. Simultaneous.

6. Movement/Placement. The computer generates pieces, you can rotate them.

7. Information availability. You can see what’s on the board, and the type of piece that will fall next.

8. Conflict resolution/interaction of game entities. This is as close as we come to the rules for where blocks fall and when they disappear.

9. "Economy" (resource acquisition). The pieces keep coming.

Let’s try a sports video game, say Madden (or just about any other football simulation).

1. Theme/History/Story/Emotion/Image. Simulates real-world football.

2. Player Interaction rules (and number of players). The player vs. the computer, ordinarily.

3. Objective/victory conditions. The same conditions as real football; even in games involving a campaign (entire season), the objective is to win a championship, just as in the real world.

4. “Data storage”. (Information Management) The computer, the virtual football field.

5. Sequencing. Simultaneous with periods of thinking in between, just as in the real thing.

6. Movement/Placement. 11 “pieces” on a side, running, passing, causing collisions.

7. Information availability. Largely available, but similar to the real world.

8. Conflict resolution/interaction of game entities. Complex rules for collisions including blocking and tackling, rules for possession and movement (and loss of) the ball.

9. "Economy" (resource acquisition). Trades, drafts, and other ways of acquiring new “pieces”; injuries.

Finally, let’s try a game that may not fit, because it uses the human body only–Rock, Paper, Scissors:

1. Theme/History/Story/Emotion/Image. None.

2. Player Interaction rules (and number of players). One player vs. another.

3. Objective/victory conditions. The circular superiorities rule determines a winner.

4. “Data storage”. (Information Management). If there is any, it’s the human brain, and only insofar as, if you play best two out of three, something must keep track of the score.

5. Sequencing. Simultaneous.

6. Movement/Placement. No pieces, nothing, really, other than your hands.

7. Information availability. Only what you can glean from your reading of your opponent.

8. Conflict resolution/interaction of game entities. Here we have the paper beats rock, rock beats scissors, scissors beats paper.

9. "Economy" (resource acquisition). No new resources, but anyone with a hand can play.

Let’s use this framework to quickly make big changes in a game. Examples here are for chess (none have been playtested...):

1. Theme. Supposedly chess once represented real (Indian subcontinent) warfare. But today it is an abstract game, and adding a story that actually makes a difference in the gamepkay is more than we have room for here.

2. Players. There are commercial chess versions for three or four players. The board is larger and not quite square; for three players the overall shape is triangular. It would be quite difficult to change the player parameters without changing the board . . .

3. Victory/Objective. First player to take at least X pieces and have two more than opponent wins the game. Or simply, first to take X pieces. (X to be determined by playtesting.) Or even more unusual and less likely to degenerate into stalemate, first to take all opposing pawns wins. In either case, checkmate of the king is still a way to win.

4. Data storage. 3D chess exists commercially. Or make some squares safe havens, where pieces cannot be captured (king cannot go there). Or add one “hyperspace” connected to all of the middle 16 squares of the board. You can move to it from any of the 16, then must stop. You can move out to any of the 16. Perhaps the most practical change is to treat the board as a cylinder, that is, the left side and right side are connected to one another.

5. Sequencing. What would chess be like if you could move two pieces at once? Probably white would move one, then movement would be two at a time thenceforth.

6. Movement/placement. There are vast numbers of “fantasy chess” variants with new pieces (and even unusual captures). What if you could move through your own pieces (the knight can do this already)? Or through your own pieces of lesser power only? Bobby Fischer advocated a variant of chess in which the back-row pieces are distributed randomly at the start of the game (and mirrored for the two players, I believe). This could be regarded as a board (data storage) change as much as a movement change.

7. Information. The 19th century game “Kriegspiel” uses three chess sets, two players, and a referee. Only the referee can see all the pieces, each player has a board showing only his own pieces. The referee let a player know when one of his pieces disappears (is captured). You can add rules for “sight distance”, of course. This is a natural for computerization (e.g. http://www.kriegspiel.co.uk/).

8. Conflict resolution. When there’s a conflict, each player rolls a die, high number wins, attacker wins ties. Attacker also rolls one die type higher (or adds one point). Pawns roll d4, bishop/knight d6, rook d8, queen d10 (or even d12). Even the king has a d4, and there is no checkmate, you must actually capture, but still warn the opponent of check.

Or make it one die per level, so a pawn rolls one d6, bishop and knight two, rook three, queen four, king one. And the attacker gets an extra die, or one extra pip per die. This variation is more practical because unusual dice are not needed.

9. Economy. Specify some squares on the board to be “supply centers”. If a player occupies such a square, he gets a “supply point” at intervals (every 5 moves?). The points can be used to buy back dead pieces, using the standard point values for pieces (Queen 10 down to pawn 1). Pieces return to play as a move, showing up in a vacant square that they would have started in.

This can be done with other traditional video and non-electronic games as an interesting exercise in game transformation. (We need more video games that let the user actually change some of these parameters to try out their own versions.) Use this framework to help you see things in a different light, to notice things you might not otherwise notice in your games, whether you’re in conception or playtesting or modding an existing game.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Getting Your Game Manufactured (Self-Publishing)

Ben Clark of Imagigrafx gave a seminar about game production costs at GenCon this year. I'll try to summarize much of what he said. While Ben represents a particular printer (which evidently prints some or all of Mayfair's games), he tried to give us some idea of what costs would be in other circumstances. Because there were many questions-and-answers, there’s not a strong narrative-line here, rather it’s an assemblage of information bits. I did not record the session, this is derived from notes I typed as Ben talked. Hence there’s likely to be an error somewhere, blame me, not Ben. Ben has blog on their Website (evidently: http://www.imagigrafx.com/gameprinter/). His August 31 post is about cards. He is happy to talk to people who want their games printed, that’s his business. Ben also has a podcast site, click on the title of this post.

Never say what your retail price is before you know the manufacturing price. The "magic number” for production costs is 15-20% of retail cost (so a $50 game would cost $10 or less to produce). In America, small print runs are going to be at 25%, more likely. So you print for no more than 20% of retail, sell to a distributor for 40%, the retailer buys from distributor at 50%, online retailers discount heavily, brick&mortar shops can’t afford to, generally, so sell at 100% of list price.

Costs can be reduced by batching several games (e.g. printing play money for several games at one time). Much of the cost in printing comes from the setup rather than from the individual copies, so unit cost goes down as number printed goes up.

He was more interested in game than text costs, but gave as an example a 128 page full color document costs just under $5 each (1000 units?). Printing text is going to be much cheaper overseas. I’ll interject that many people doing small runs of games that are purely text and art (such as RPGs) often use LuLu or another POD site that prints copies on demand.

Ben was talking about a two piece box, game board, platform (insert), rulebook, cards, parts. There’s an assembly price unless you assemble yourself, and a shipping carton for shipping to retailer/distributor, 20-30 cents per game for the carton. (As I have noticed, Fantasy Flight, for example, has a standard carton that holds six of their standard boxes.)

He recommended doing a square box, others cost too much and retailers hate it. So no Monopoly-shaped boxes (even though Monopoly still does it). The standard is about 10.5 inches on a side--Wal-mart’s desire– about3 inches deep. (I’ll interject that many boxes and boards seem to be made on an 11 by 11 inch square standard, near enough. For example, the FFG Britannia board is six 11 by 11 sections.)

Print together with someone else, if you can, to reduce costs.

You need a box. Plastic bags shelved edge on (as for DeskTopPublished games), don't do it. Use a hang tag on a tuck box (box for a deck of cards). Boxes, 1000, about 2.20/box. 2,500 boxes, maybe less than $1.80 maybe even $1.50 each.

You won't save money by not printing a box bottom. The back/bottom sells the game. Always use full color.

Price has an influence on size and weight of box. Mayfair had a standard small box for $20 games, crammed a lot into same box for $25, and it didn't sell. People don’t want to pay a lot for a small or light box, they want to feel they’re getting something substantial. (Yet the heavier the box, the more it costs to ship to the distributor. You’re trying to find a good middle ground in many of these decisions.)

Many games use a sheet (sometimes even diecut sheets of card-stock) instead of a mounted game board, to save money. Traditional mounted board 20" by 20" $1.80-2.40 for 1000 pieces. There’s a 23 by 33 inch limitation on the machines that make the boards, don’t make yours larger if you want it mounted. American style boards with the “valley” are cheaper than the “Euro” style.

The platform or insert avoids shifting of contents during shipping, such as forklift movement. Molded plastic is $3,000-5,000 just for the mold, so can cost over a buck each. Cardboard 35-50 cents.

Cards are the most expensive component pound for pound. Bridge size cards: 110 is the magic number on one piece of equipment (and this could be two identical decks of 55, for example). But it varies, with another machine the number might be 60. If the number is, say, 85 for a machine, then 85 card decks might be cheaper than 83 card decks. If 5-10K units, below that it “gets wonky.” (That’s what my notes say!) (thegamecrafter.com prints cards in sets of 16, for example.)

Magic”the Gathering card stock is 11.5-12 pt. Wargame cardboard counters 40-66 pt.
Board 75-80 pt. (A point is a hundreth of an inch?)

Cheapest printing: square corner, common white border or black, saves several cents per deck. Round corners are better for shuffling and holding in hand. Round corners can add as much as a quarter to the cost of a deck. Proper playing card stock is a laminate, "insanely expensive"--1000 sheets $660; 12 pt not laminate $250-280.
Linen is very expensive, more common in Europe.

Ballpark for art $3-5000. Make sure your art is good. Don't forget you have to sell the game before people will play it. (Lew: the old guide for novels was, a good novel with a bad color won’t sell, a bad novel with a good cover will. Presumably the same still applies, and to games as well.) Art should be at least 300 dpi.

Use high-end graphics programs, not Word for rules. Your rules are art, high quality PDF or Adobe Illustrator etc. file (InDesign). Printers use CMYK color. RGB won't convert well, blacks will be 90% gray. Bleeds are one eighth inch or three, gameboards 5/8 bleed. Purples and oranges a problem. Purple changes. Oranges hard to match. Avoid.

Set type in Illustrator, not Photoshop. (Lew: Photoshop is a bitmap program, keeping track of the location of every pixel (dot). Illustrator is vector graphics, keeping track of the formulas that define the objects. This makes for smaller files, but especially good because it scales easily, the program just recalculates the formula.)

US vs. China. Print your first game in US, then look to China. China cheaper. You can sue someone in the US if things go drastically wrong. China varies a lot, not much recourse. Catalyst recently had Chinese manufacturer vanish on them.

For a million units he got within a quarter per unit for Mattel vs. China cost. (Lew: Hasbro has a million square foot factory with injection molding equipment in New England. So they can do their own manufacturing.)

US you get your stuff in 4-6 weeks, China 90-120 days.

Make sure you get a “landed” price from China. $2,500 for a half container, $5K full container.

Rulebook 22 to 48 cents (per sheet). 60 pound paper. B&W. "Color is about five times more expensive 20 times more impact". 4 pages to a sheet.

Assembly. Can do it yourself. Shrink-wrapper expensive.

Custom plastics, go to China. Mold costs $20K in US vs $3,500 in China. Small run in pewter may be cheaper. Find someone with a mold that fits your requirements.

Wood pieces don’t use molds. (Lew: I understand wood pieces often come for Eastern Europe.)

Piece sources: Plastics for Games UK. Mr Chips US.

And a bit related to publicity: a GenCon 10 by 10 booth cost $1,300. I’ll interject here that every year at Origins, and probably GenCon as well (I’ve only been there once), you see little companies selling one or two games. The next year and following they’re not there, because it in’t worth the costs of booth and personnel and travel to do it again (if it was the first time...).