Monday, October 11, 2010

Go it alone games

One of my recently devised prototypes is a nameless game ("Colonial Scramble", maybe) that I think of as my gateway card wargame. Roughly speaking it's set around 1890, a time when the great European powers were still grabbing colonies in Africa. With five players, the most successful players are likely to work together, it's not a game where you can "go it alone". Yet some of the players are accustomed to typical board and card games of today, which are designed to enable you to go it alone even when there are four or more players.

And now that I think of it I suspect that many modern games, certainly Eurostyle games, are designed to let people go it alone and still succeed. Even the nature of role-playing games reflects this one way or the other. If you try to go it alone in first or second edition D&D, you are probably going to die, later if not sooner. Then third edition came along, designed to let each player be a one-man army that could succeed on his or her own.

A general comment about Gen X versus millennials (Gen Y) is that Gen Xers like to go it alone while millennials prefer to share and work together. In my experience the serious Eurostyle players are much higher proportion of Gen X while the role-playing gamers include a much higher proportion of millennials. Perhaps that's reflected in fourth edition D&D which is returned to being a game in which you must cooperate or your party is likely to fail.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

The curse of Brit-like games: play balance

After a partial session of Arthuria on Thursday, I am reminded once again how bloody difficult it is to get balanced sides in a Britannia-like game. On the basis of one playing, many people will say that Britannia itself is unbalanced--then pick any one of the colors to be one that has a big advantage or disadvantage--but we know from statistics that it is in fact quite well-balanced. Part of that is a result of what I call the invisible hand, the way the four players interact to keep someone from running away with the victory, and the way experienced players know what they need to do. You can bet that even those players when they first played the game did not know whether it made sense to attack Caledonians early in the game or whether the Welsh should fight tooth and nail rather than submit, and so on. (And some groups come up with different answers to those questions.) Playtesting a new game, there's none of that experience base to draw on. But given the length of games of this type it is pretty hard to get people together to play again and again, at least for me where I live.

My original sides in Britannia were slightly different than the ones published. And despite several occasions when I've tried to find another set of four with the current forces in points that would be balanced, I have not found any that are satisfactory. The game has to be tweaked to fit the sides.

For some of my prototype games I think I've got pretty good sides; for others it seems like every time there's a playtest, something's lopsided. The trick is not to overreact. Arthuria was originally designed to have players draft their nations. But I quickly decided you can have players doing that when they have no idea of how the game's going to go, which is why I'm trying to figure out a set of sides. *Shakes head*.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Game design can be hard work because thinking can be hard work

In high school, the teacher is expected to think for you, to package everything in small digestible bits that can be memorized for multiple-choice tests. For the most part, you are trained, not educated, taught to memorize how to do something, rather than understand how to do something, or to memorize facts instead of understanding how systems work. Problem-solving is not part of that package, for sure.

High schoolers become accustomed to the thinking part of their brain being in first gear, or park, rather than in top gear. “Idle”.

Game design is all about critical thinking; one well-known “indie” video game designer says it’s 99% critical thinking, though I won’t go quite that far. The teacher cannot think for you, in game design, you have to think for yourself. And thinking is undoubtedly hard.

Too many people think they can get an idea and someone else will do the work–work which involves a great deal of thinking. Too many think they can easily make a game “just like such-and-such but better”, having no idea how hard it is to make really good games (it’s easy to make poor ones). When they’re posed the problem of making a game that isn’t “just like such-and-such”, they are floored.

Further, game design is about problem-solving. In general, a prototype game is broken. The game designer must figure out ways to fix it, and then ways to make it even better even though it works, because lots of games that work aren’t really very good. These are all problem-solving exercises.

If the initial conception is fundamentally good, then there’s a lot of work to be done to get a good (or better) game out of it. If the initial conception is poor, then it will be difficult if not impossible to get a decent game out of it, and that will require abandoning some of the original conception. Even if the initial conception is “wonderful”, there are thousands of ways to mess it up.

Yes, there are hard jobs that are nonetheless rewarding and even fun. Dave Duncan, a well-known science fiction and fantasy novelist, didn’t start publishing novels until he was laid off from Canadian oil fields at over 50 years old. After 33 novels, he said writing (which is largely thinking) was still hard work.

Sometimes, designing games is hard work because thinking is hard work.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Social "games" as simple puzzles

Farmville and similar social "games" are in fact very simple continuing puzzles. Contrast this with real games and with the typical traditional single-player "interactive puzzle".

Let's face it, puzzles are more popular than games. Crossword puzzles, physical puzzles, jigsaw puzzles. The venerable "Games" magazine is more about puzzles than games, and if you look in the "Games" section of a bookdstore, you're more likely to find books of puzzles than books about games.

Why? Well, one reason may be that you can work with a puzzle a little, then go do something else, then come back. You can't do that with a real game (until recently with mail and email games) because there's a group of people right there, right now. And puzzles have very simple rules, so simple that many people would say a puzzle has no rules. People don't like to be bothered with rules (hence the popularity of video "games"). But I think the main reason why puzzles are more popular than games is, no one can beat you in a puzzle. You might feel a bit like a loser if you can't solve the puzzle, but that depends on the person; still, no one beats you--you cannot "lose", you can only give up.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Rumination about free-to-play games

If so many social games and other free-to-play games depend on voluntary expenditure of funds by the players, will we see over time that players become more resistant to such expenditures, the way people have become more and more indifferent to advertising? (Yes, advertising still works; but it requires a higher volume/greater frequency to be effective, I believe.)

Friday, October 01, 2010

Individual customization

Customization seems to be very attractive to young people who play video games. Perhaps they feel more of a need to express their individuality than someone of my generation (baby boomer) might feel.

Does this desire for customization spill over into the ranks of tabletop game players? And if so, how can we accommodate the desire? Role-playing games can do it, of course, through multiple classes, character attribute numbers, feats, skills, and the like; but how do we do it in board or card games?

Last Night I was talking to college age gamers about creating characters in Paranoia and other role-playing games. Evidently it takes a long time to generate a Paranoia character. And I said that's a barrier to entry, if someone takes a long time to create the character they're less likely to play. Well, they don't see it that way. They talk about character generation in someone's variant of Harn to where you could actually die during character generation. And apparently character generation in normal Harn can take an hour or more. So there's lots of lots of dice rolling to generate things from tables.

Now I remember back in the early days of D&D, we would sometimes do strange things like "roll a sword"--roll on the magic sword tables and see what we came up with. It was a fun way to do something with D&D when we couldn't play. But this hours long character generation, and the possibility of ending up with something that's pretty junky, I just don't get. I guess it's a generational thing. I note that in fourth edition D&D there is a character generation method that doesn't use dice, and no dice-generated character is allowed in the official RPGA events. (By the way, as far as I know I was one of the first people, if not the first, to have a no-dice character generation method published.)

Getting back to the board and card games, it is impractical to have a long customization built into a game because then the game will take too long. About as close as I come is having cards to represent a variety of different characters or groups that can be played in some of my card games. And of course in historical game, in effect which side you play (if the game is asymmetric) provides a small modicum of customization.

(Another day, further thoughts)

Why is customization so important to young video game players? I read two video game magazines regularly, plus a lot on the Web, and I have had many video game design students. The importance of customization is often mentioned by all of these sources. This can range from the purely cosmetic (customization of appearance) to functional (customizing weapons, or merely having lots of weapons to choose from).

I can understand functional customization because it may give you an advantage in the game. I don't understand cosmetic customization. That may be because I'm not visually oriented, or because I'm a veteran gamer and veterans tend to pay attention to what lets them succeed in the game, not what it looks like.

But why the interest in cosmetic customization? Have young people become oppressed by the sameness of modern civilization? Do they feel so helpless in real life that they need a means of self-expression in their games? Is this desire to "look different" related to the constant monitoring that seems to be the norm for kids nowadays (helicopter parents)? Is it just an expression of something else?

I have no idea.