Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Game design is no place for “perfectionism”

No game can be perfect–it depends so much on the audience, the individual player, the mood, the group (if played by a group), even the timing of creation and publication.

A game that “doesn’t get in the way” may be perfect for a group of friends to play, but dull for a group of strangers who are going to concentrate more on the game and less on the players.

The Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns always applies, in games. There is always a way to improve the game, but it may not be worth the time it will take to find that improvement, and the risk of “disimproving” when you change it. A “perfectionist” can never finish a game.

As someone once said about models in general– a game is a model of something–we need idealists to make models, not realists: people willing to recognize that the model cannot be perfect, people who will discover what the essence of the question is and concentrate on that, rather than try for the “perfect” solution.

Saturday, May 22, 2010


What I do when I design a tabletop game is something like what a novelist does when he or she writes a book. A book has an author, one or more editors, and (we hope) readers. So does a game, but players instead of readers.

A tabletop game designer is responsible for most of the content of his game. Playtesters provide some of the rest, and the publisher may assign a "developer" (formally or informally) who also contributes to the game. The developer, like a book editor, may make big changes or only small ones. In any case, the game is primarily the product of one or two minds, plus the work of the artist who makes the production components.

A big difference between games and novels is that there is little or no "playtesting" of the novel. (There's more for a non-fiction title, possibly peer reviewers as well as editors.) Novels are not interactive, games are. Reader "testing" is much less important for a novel than gamer testing is for a game, because that interactivity takes some of the control out of the game-author's hands.

Looked at another way, the most important part of novel writing is the writing. The most important part of tabletop game creation is the playtesting.

What a video game designer in a AAA video game does is more akin to being head of a software project, or at best, being writer of a movie. If you know much about movies, you know that what's written is heavily influenced beforehand by the chiefs of the project, and then is often modified heavily by the director and crew during production of the film. For AAA games, hundreds of people may be involved in making the game. With rare exceptions, I'd suggest, the chief designer of a video game rarely has more than 25% influence over how the game plays, while the designer of a tabletop game has 90-99% influence in many cases.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Belated comments about PrezCon

Two people have reminded me that I haven't written anything specifically about PrezCon 2010. I don't write "After Action Reports", but I can make a few observations.

After a decline last year, attendance was a new record according to Justin Thompson, who organizes PrezCon. Probably the best thing you can say about a successful convention such as this one is that it was more of the same, lots of tournaments, an auction, some vendors and publishers, open gaming, a mix of middle-aged and older folks along with much younger ones who were often families of the older ones.

It is very much a one-third-sized WBC (Pennsylvania in August). If you like WBC you'll like PrezCon and vice versa. There may be other conventions like this elsewhere in the country, but I don't know of them. Both focus on boardgames and card games. Both are very much un-like Origins and GenCon, which are much, much larger conventions that include a much wider variety of gaming, such as RPGs, CCGs, and miniatures. (Ballpark attendance: PrezCon 500, WBC 1,500, Origins 10-15,000, GenCon 28,000). Occasionally the weather intervenes in late February, not a problem with the summer cons.

Some people really get honed in on one game at this convention. Two I know played 17 and 19 games of Robo-Rally (one won the tournament, the other finished third if I recall correctly). I am not a Robo-rally fan, I have trouble even seeing which way the robots are pointing, but I understand some of the pull of the game.

I did not hear the whole story, but a philanthropist enabled youngsters (12 and under) to each buy a free game (or at least part of one, something like $35). Quite a gesture. In general, as far as I could make out, sales of games seemed to be pretty good.

The Britannia tournament was pretty well attended, though we all missed usual GM Jim Jordan, who could not come this year. Mark Smith filled in. One lad (10 or 12) found out that I'd designed the game, and told me I must be the best player! I told him that I've never played the published version, and that designers often aren't the best players.

I've written down one quote:
Keith Altizer (who was subbing for the last turn for Kevin Sudy (I may have mangeld that last name) in the Brit final, Kevin had to leave before the end and was in no danger of winning): "I'm not losing, I'm not playing this game." I cannot recall who won, though I suspect it was Mark Smith.