Wednesday, November 24, 2010


Branding is becoming very important in the world (or at least, the US). There's the classic experiment where young kids were given two sets of fast food to evaluate. One was marked McDonalds, the other not. The food was identical, but the kids significantly favored the branded food. And a famous pinball machine designer said that you just couldn't succeed without a tie-in to some IP or other... We see many, many sequels in the video game world, but that is partly because sequels have ready-made brands.

Even in playtesting, I'm finding that it's become harder to persuade people to play a game they've never heard of or seen, even when I've taken the time to make the prototype fairly attractive. This is at a monthly meeting that I've attended, off-and-on, for many years; but the people keep changing over time, with the trend away from old-time strategy gamers and toward Euro types.

The exception is where I'm a well-known quantity, as at NC State, where the people have played many of my games and know they're worthwhile. Someone said "you're the brand" when I mentioned this, and I suppose that's true. Perhaps, in the first case, if I sat with a couple of my published games beside me that would help. Then again, I'm just not an arm-twister.

Another difference between the two is that at NC State there are few new games coming into the club and not a great number of old ones, whereas at the monthly meeting people bring lots of games, including lots of new ones, and there's a big games library as well. (There's also a big age difference; the average age at the monthly meeting is around 40, at NC State around 20.)

Monday, November 22, 2010

An unsual game seen at MACE: Ex Illis

The most unusual game I saw at MACE is called ex illis. It is a miniatures game played on a 4x4 square grid with units of several troops and occasional individuals. It's supposed to reflect some non-historical 13th century European situation, but is obviously fantastical. The striking part, however, is that can only be played in conjunction with software that tracks many of the complexities of the game system. The software is free but you can't use a unit until you "activate" it, so the software alone doesn't let you do anything. The software doesn't show the map with actual units, but otherwise it shows graphics of the units and their movement as you move them and attack. You can look up their level of help but the information about their exact offense of capabilities doesn't appear to be accessible. The company's website ( emphasizes the possibility that units can become more powerful, gaining levels and other capabilities, as you play more games. The unpainted miniatures themselves are plastic, and I'd say they're very expensive but people used it typical miniatures prices may have a different view. A single huge monster is $55. Eight priests or eight warriors are $30. Four cavalry are $35.

There is no ruleset that I could see, it's all in the software. I watched several games being played, and have to say that it appears there is even less tactics to the game than I see in most miniatures games (and I don't see that there's much in typical miniatures). I guess this game will appeal more to miniatures than to battle fans, because there appears to be not much in the battles; of course I'd say the same thing about Warhammer fantasy.

A pitch-man talking about Ex Illis: For $70 you get a lot of hobby, you gotta paint all those miniatues and..." That's a problem, not a recommendation. Painting minis is not my hobby.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

MACE convention

MACE (Mid-Atlantic Convention Expo), proclaiming itself "the largest gaming convention in the Carolinas", met for the 14th year on November 12-14 in High Point, NC. I was at MACE only on Saturday.

MACE is an offshoot of science fiction and fantasy conventions. There are lots of SF/F conventions, often with comics and costuming and lots of other things including games thrown in. I haven't been to one of those conventions since the world science fiction convention that was in Washington DC about 35 years ago. I have a friend who attends many conventions of this kind, and he finds most of them are not very interesting from a game point of view. He has the same to say about his experience in the past with MACE. But he is interested in boardgames and non-collectible card games, and offshoots like HeroClix. He has played D&D for more than 20 years but isn't interested in playing some other RPG.

Not surprisingly, SF/F convention gameplaying emphasizes individual role-playing, as this is the kind of tabletop gaming that most emphasizes story. MACE follows that tradition. Although it was possible to see several board games going on at any particular time, and although there were miniatures games and some CCG's, most of the gameplaying was role-playing. I think a lot of the people came to try role-playing games that they don't have the opportunity to play at home. I talked for a bit with the owner of the convention, Jeff Smith, and he emphasized how much he likes to introduce people to new games and get them out of their ruts. The convention does that well, and people were obviously having a good time which is what counts.

He's tried tournaments, but they don't get much interest. He has never been to a game convention that derives from game traditions, such as PrezCon, WBC, Origins, or GenCon. Two of those are entirely board and noncollectible card games, and the others are much less heavily role-playing.

The small vendor room also reflected the ancestry of the convention, as there were lots of nongame items such as clothing, and the only well-established game publisher was Hero Games, which specializes in RPG's.

In the middle of the day Saturday there was a "chat with the pros panel," which the convention does each year. At a convention where most of the people are relatively local-I drove 104 miles each way which is probably one of the longer trips-I wouldn't expect there to be many people who are interested in the professional side of game production, and so it proved to be. I think they were four spectators and eight pros, all in the RPG business except for me. But it was a lively two-hour discussion, and I learned a lot because I haven't been involved in role-playing gaming for quite some time.

I don't know what the convention attendance was but it appeared to be several hundred.

I had volunteered to talk later the same way I do at WBC and Origins and there was one pro (me) talking to one person who was interested in role-playing game design. Which was alright because I had to think about what to write in my game design book to say how role-playing game design differs from other kinds of tabletop game design. It does show the nature of the convention which was a lot of people wanting to play games and most of them being role-playing games.

I've been inspired by what I've heard at the convention about game distribution to go back to working on my Aetherships game. It's fantasy ships in outer space, kind of like SpellJammer. I originally devised it in 2003 but didn't write the rules in detail and didn't test it. Now I'm going to make it a standalone game with two parts, one a tactical ship to ship/fleet to fleet game, the other a game with boarding actions and individual characters using a very simple RPG system I devised for another game that has sat gathering dust.

If that goes far enough, I may go back to MACE next year to look for playtesters. Otherwise, there doesn't seem to be anything to really hold my interest. I don't follow RPGs any more, and don't usually play; and certainly don't have any interest in trying new ones.

I'm going to list game conventions here in case anyone is adjusted in trying one of the more prominent ones. I'm going to include the distance from my place which is a bit north of Fayetteville, NC.

MACE--100 miles, High Point, mid-November, 3 days, 400? people.

PrezCon--250 miles, Charlottesville Virginia, late February, 4 days, 500 people. This convention is all about boardgames and noncollectible card games, and is organized in tournaments with plaques as prizes. It is a convention for people who want to play their favorite games many times. My friend who didn't find much at MACE played nineteen games of Roborally at the last PrezCon!

WBC (World Boardgaming Championships) -- 450 miles, Lancaster Pennsylvania, early August (beautiful weather), six days, 1500 people. This is the granddaddy of PrezCon. As with PrezCon, you rarely see anyone playing see CCG's or miniatures or RPG's. (There's a huge miniatures convention, Historicon, at the same place a week or two before.)

Origins-- 500 miles, Columbus Ohio, late June/early July, four or five days, more than 10,000 people. This is a much more diverse convention (there's even an art show) and does not have tournaments. It is the main awards and famous guests convention for boardgames and noncollectible card games.

GenCon-- 660 miles, Indianapolis Indiana, early-mid August, four or five days, nearly 30,000 people. GenCon having originated from Dungeons & Dragons, RPG's are much more prominent here, but there are also comic fans and Cosplay (costume) fans and movie fans, and it's more like a SF/F convention that the preceding three game conventions. There are some tournaments, but usually not ones that extend over several days as at WBC or PrezCon. The exhibit hall is awesomely enormous, with "booth babes" yet (no, the others aren't big enough for that expense). Unfortunately, next year GenCon is scheduled at the same time as WBC, just as it was this year.

There are lots of local/regional game conventions on this side of the country that I don't attend, and some larger conventions west of the Mississippi. But if I were to name the major hobby board and non-collectible card game conventions in the US, GenCon, Origins, and WBC would be the only three I would name.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Education: what are the major differences in focus between various kinds of game curricula?

This originally appeared (with the title "Game Curricula: Differences in Focus" on GameCareerGuide 4 Aug 09. You can click the title of this post to go there.

Education: what are the major differences in focus
between various kinds of game curricula?
Lewis Pulsipher

There seems to be a lot of confusion–some of it deliberate, unfortunately–about several categories of academic programs devoted to games. I’m going to try to describe the differences between “game studies,” “game development/production,” and “game design.”

Game Studies
In “game studies” you are not creating games or even ideas or frameworks for games. You are studying and analyzing games and game players the way psychologists study people or biologists study plants and animals. You want to know such things as why people play games, what “fun” is, what are the fundamental elements of games, what role story plays in games; you may spend a lot of time and effort defining just what a game is–and never come to a conclusion all can agree on! Another aspect of game studies can be evaluating the effect of game playing on the players (for example, with educational games and simulations). The person studying games may not be a lifelong avid game player, though I’d think that many are. Someone in game studies, when playing or watching a game, is more likely to think about how it works, to analyze it, to consider how it affects the players, than he is to be concerned about how enjoyable it is to play (though that IS part of the analysis). The principle “deliverables” of game studies students–what they actually make or do--are long academic papers about games.

Sometimes the study of games is called “ludology”, and as with any other academic discipline, there are doctoral dissertations and formal journals and conferences devoted to the study of games.

Game studies people PONDER; game developers and game designers DO. As with many academic disciplines, then, game studies can ultimately illuminate how games can be improved, but its effects on game creation are indirect and distant rather than direct. If you want to actually make games, “game studies” is not where you want to be.

Game Development
In video game development, your concern is how to create the entire game, to get from the image of the game originally residing in the mind of the designer(s)–the initial game design–to a working video game. (A better term would be video game production or video game creation.) The great part of the production time and money is devoted to programming and art, with lesser amounts spent on game design.

A school teaching game development, then, may concentrate on one of the aspects, or may try to cover the three major ones, design, programming, and art.

In contrast, in the non-electronic game world, game development plays a fairly small part in the creation of a game, because there is no programming, no sound, and so forth. The art is simple, and there is rarely much of it. A published non-electronic game is 80-95% the work of the designer, whereas a AAA list video game is perhaps 25% the work of the design team (such games are designed by committee, in effect if not formally).

A video game developer who is not a designer, when playing or watching a game, is likely to think about how it how it was made, what software tools were used, how long it took, how many people were involved. But developers usually love to play games, as well.

The “deliverables” of game development students, depending on their concentration, will be 3D models, animation, artwork, pieces of game programs, mods, fully-realized simple video games (no one has the time to make a AAA list style game in school).

Game Design
This brings us to game design. The game designer is the person who conceives the framework and structure of a game, who writes the rules or the game design document for the game, who decides how to modify the prototype many times until, ideally, the game is good enough to be manufactured. Game design is a combination of conception, communication, and dogged continuous improvement, via playtesting. The initial ideas don’t count for much, and anyone who thinks he can get an idea and someone else will do the real work is in “cloud-cuckoo land”.

In video games constant communication is very important, as other people actually make the game and get it to work. The designer has to describe his game in great detail so that those people can make it. (In the non-electronic world, the designer makes the entire game, except for the actual production artwork. Communication with playtesters and publishers is still important.) In many cases, AAA list video games are actually designed by committee, involving several official “designers” but also every person on the production team. Everyone wants to contribute to how the game works, and the designer must carefully accommodate (and take advantage of the brain power of) all those folks.

A video game designer, when playing or watching a game, is likely to think about player interaction, challenges, what makes the game worth playing.

The “deliverables” of game design students, are completed non-electronic games, completed levels for existing games, completed game mods, game design documents (for games not yet made), and (in conjunction with game development students) completed simple video games.

Confusing or Misleading Labeling
You may be able to see why game designers are rarely hired straight out of school. Experience counts for a lot, and of all people on a production team the designers are most able to completely foul up a game. In most cases, the designer begins as a tester or programmer in the industry, or as a level designer.

Because there are relatively few jobs for graduates as designers, many game schools devote little instruction time to game design, and not much to level design (which is a subset of game design). Unfortunately, “game design” sounds much cooler than “game production” or “game development”. The big problem, then, for those wanting to attend game-related curricula is that schools often accidentally or deliberately mislabel what they do, most often labeling as “game design” a curriculum that is all about programming or art.

For example, I encountered a university recently that teaches 3D modeling, with a couple game-design-related classes. Yet they call it “game design” and claim that 3D modeling will lead to a game design job once you’re in the industry. I cannot think of a single game designer who started as a 3D modeler (I'm sure there must be some). Designers tend to be former programmers or people who started in QA and other ancillary parts of game production, not in art. (This particular school is in England, the problem is not confined to the United States.)

Similarly, there are schools that say they teach “game development”, but in practice focus almost entirely on game studies or on programming. The latter is especially confusing. A “developer”, in the computer world, is someone who creates software, whereas a “game developer” is someone who creates games whether by programming, art, design, sound, or other means. This is why “game creator” would be a better term, to avoid the confusion with programming.

So what is it, really?
So how do you as a prospective student tell what’s really happening? First, find descriptions of the required classes. Often this will be enough. If most of the required classes involve programming, it doesn’t matter whether the school calls it “game design”, it’s about programming. If most of the required classes are art/3D courses, it’s not game design, it’s game art. If most of the classes involve studying and analyzing games rather than designing, programming, and doing art for games, then it’s game studies, not game development.

If the descriptions aren’t enough–and sometimes descriptions don’t match reality–then you’ll have to try to talk to a current student. Talking with the instructors may help, too, but this depends on how much the instructors are responsible for the mislabeling of the curriculum!

Finally, find out what the background of the instructors is. Have they made games? Look at their resumes and their Web portfolios (they have one, no?). (Few “game studies” people have actual experience of making commercial games.) If teaching game design, have they had games published commercially?

Few schools actually teach game design on its own, without a lot of associated game production classes. In my part of the country, the only one I know of is Savannah College of Art and Design.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Playing at being godlike

Last night at the NC State tabletop gamers meeting, a large group was playing a "game" called "Dawn of Worlds". (Google the title with quotation marks for the PDF.) I put game in quotation marks because it's actually a cooperative--or mostly cooperative--way for a group of people to create a world for a role-playing game. The brief rules provide guidelines for using power points to create terrain, create races and cities, create godlike avatars and armies, and use catastrophes and other methods to reshape the land and the people. This is all very free form, in the end there's probably one person who is the main guide and settles disputes.

Eight people played for more than three hours and did not finish. Some who had played before said it was fun. Most of what happened was cooperative, but a couple guys held all their points for most of the game and then created mayhem. (The game provides extra power points for players who use their points regularly, probably because this storage and mayhem tactic had been used more than once.)

The purpose of the original creators of the "game" was to enable a group of people to create a common fantasy world so that everyone would understand what it was like and what its history was. This would be easier than each person creating their own world that the others would not be familiar with.

Me being me, I was trying to think how this could be integrated into a board game something like Populous, the original gods game by Peter Molyneux from back in DOS days. The young participants in Dawn of Worlds had never heard of Populous, but I have for years had the notion of creating a boardgame something like the video game.

Dawn of Worlds, created by a considerable group of fantasy gamers, has been around since 2005 but I had never heard of it.