Thursday, December 22, 2011

Christmas Miscellany

Periodic notes not individually demanding a separate post:

I gave four one-hour talks about game design at Origins this past summer.  MP3s of the talks, and some wordy slides, are posted on my Web site, along with other MP3s and slides from older presentations.

I have two Risk variants that need playtesting (variants of traditional non-mission Risk, not of the 2008 revision).  One is "Zombie Risk", where for every two armies the zombies kill, one becomes a zombie, and the other is Barbarian Risk, where a new map is used, and players represent barbarians fighting over the end of the Roman Empire.

If you're interested in playtesting either or both of these, let me know and I'll send you the rules/map electronically.

When I can do no more with them (I can't spend much time developing them, of course, since they're not commercially viable), I'll post them on my Web site and on the Risk section of BGG.

While dropping off a prescription recently I overheard two senior citizen ladies talking about Farmville and other games.  They both averred that if Farmville started to charge a fee, they would no longer play.  Although a third person who came by said that in order to finish something, if she had to spend up to $20 she might do it.  One of them specifically said you have to be careful not to play such games too much or you might miss out on enjoying a beautiful day like today (which it certainly was).

I found it interesting that these people played, although they were not likely much older than I am (60).  It did make me wonder how games like Farmville make money, but I keep in mind that what people say they'll do, and what they actually do, are often two different things.  It's also true that only around two percent of players of "social network" games actually spend money doing it.

Eleanor Roosevelt is quoted as saying "Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people."  I'm trying to adapt this to other situations.

This may be harsh, but it started me thinking about ways to adapt this statement to game design and game players.  How about:

Great game designers think it's about playtesting and modification, average game designers think it's about planning, weak game designers think it's about ideas.

Great Britannia players think it's about understanding what opponents are trying to do, average Britannia players think it's about measured use of resources, weak Britannia players think it's all about conquering as much as possible.

Great game players think about strategies, average game players think about think about puzzle solutions, weak game players think about being lucky.

IGDA's Facebook page asked what is the most important characteristic for game developers.  My reply was:  For game designers, ability to think critically about their own efforts.  For programmers, problem-solving.  For artists, ability to understand what others (designers) have imagined, but to improve it if possible.  And for all, a productive orientation.

Game titles are sometimes changed by the publisher.  My title for Britannia was "The Invasions of Britain".  I like the publisher's title better.  On the other hand, "Dragon Rage" is my title.

I read that Robert Louis Stevenson called his book that we know as Treasure Island "The Sea Cook", title changed editorially.  Another example of a good change.

I called my game design book Learning Game Design.  The published title will be  “Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish".  Works for me.

But I'm sure it goes the other way as well, the publisher choosing a less suitable title.  I don't know of an example, though.  (Magazine article titles are often changed.)

Dragon Rage was originally published in 1982.  Much later, 3DOpublished a video game of the same name for the Playstation 2, though there is nothing in common between the games in actual play.  For the Sony game see

Many Euro games seem to be treated, by the players themselves, like puzzles to be solved.  It's not unusual to see "opponents" suggesting (in a helpful way) what moves a player might make.  No wonder Pandemic proved to be so popular.

I discovered on Dec 13th that somehow some comments on my blogspot blog were waiting for moderation that I missed.  Though at least one of them had in fact already been moderated and posted.  Now taken care of.

 I get a lot more SPAM comments than I get real ones, these days, including an ad for a program that will enable you to SPAM blogs by beating the captcha.  Which I suppose is where many of them come from.  Sigh, what a waste of time.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Six words about casual games

According to tweetdeck, one of the trending:worldwide topics on twitter is 6 word stories.

I've asked for 6 words about game designers, 6 about programmers, and 6 about wargames, with interesting results.  Now I want to ask about another type of game.

Can you say in 6 words what makes casual games interesting--or not?  (And you'll have to decide what "casual games" are.)

Monday, December 12, 2011

Innovation in Game Design

I rarely listen to podcasts, I suppose because I think writing provides a more concentrated form of information.  (I don’t read blogs much, either, preferring more formal articles.)  It takes more effort to read something than to listen, but in a given amount of time I think reading something that has been carefully written about a topic is more effective than listening to a podcast, which by its nature can be diffuse rather than focused.

Recently I was asked to participate in a podcast, “Ludology,” with Ryan Sturm and Geoff Englestein, “a podcast about the why of gaming” (in their case, tabletop gaming).  So I listened to some episodes before agreeing (it will be recorded in January).  The podcast is quite focused, the hosts have a topic in mind, may have a guest, and they talk about that topic.  There are no feedback segments or other distractions, just discussion of the topic and related topics.

A recent episode is about innovation and this set me to thinking about a topic that I think Does Not Matter in game design.  Most game players Don’t Care either, but clearly some people do. 

Definitions are important, as people seem to have different things in mind when they see the word “innovation” and its variations. “in·no·va·tion  noun
1.  something new or different introduced: numerous innovations in the high-school curriculum.
2.  the act of innovating;  introduction of new things or methods. “

“Innovation is the creation of better or more effective products, processes, technologies, or ideas that are accepted by markets, governments, and society. Innovation differs from invention in that innovation refers to the use of a new idea or method, whereas invention refers more directly to the creation of the idea or method itself.”

These definitions are different as Wikipedia emphasizes the use of innovations rather than the creation of innovations, and uses “invention” for the creation of what others might call innovations.  In effect in #1 is defining what “an innovation” is while Wikipedia is defining what innovation itself is (’s #2).

However you look at it, why doesn’t “innovation” matter in game design?  First, true innovation in the sense of an entirely new mechanic in games is quite unusual.  "There is nothing new under the sun" applies to games more often than most might think.  Those brilliant ideas of today have often been used in the past.  This is typical:

    That's kind of a common pattern in everything I do. One minute I'm completely on my own and I think, “Wow, I'm a genius, I can't believe this idea nobody else had!” And then you look at the references on it, and it turns out that a hundred other people have done the same things in the 1980s.  And then you look, and you get your additional ideas from those. Between invention and stealing, you come up with a really good combination of ideas.  --Tim Sweeney (founder of Epic Games, publishers of Unreal Tournament series, Gears of War series, in Gamasutra interview 2009).

Second, whether something is innovative depends almost entirely upon one’s knowledge of previous usage.  To someone who is only accustomed to games like Monopoly and Sorry and Risk, Settlers of Catan may appear to be highly innovative, though to most hobby gamers it’s old hat.  In other words, innovation is entirely relative.

Once again, the question is what is “new”?  What’s new to a typical game player may not be new to a veteran gamer of broad experience.  And what is new to veteran gamer of broad experience today will not be new a few months from now. 

Being concerned about Innovation (with a capital “I”) reminds me of people who need to know sports scores NOW, even though the score will be just the same if they don't find out until tomorrow.  That is, what's innovative now, isn't later.  While an element new to a player may be a form of surprise, what counts in the long run is how the game plays, not whether any element of it is “new.”

The relativistic view that it all depends on what the players are familiar with, was brought home when the hosts of the podcast asked themselves whether Stratego was an innovative game.  However, they were unaware of the history of Stratego. There is no innovation in Stratego because it's an almost exact (and entirely legal) post-World War II copy of L'Attaque, a game originally patented and published in 1909 and still in print along with a group of spinoff games when I lived in Britain in ‘76-‘79.  By any definition, there is no innovation in Stratego.  But to most people who are unaware of those older games it is “new” in its methods. 

The idea that a game is more desirable to play because it is "innovative" puzzles me immensely.  This appears to be part of the “Cult of the New”.  On the other hand, as Shigeru Miyamoto has said, game designers are entertainers and are trying to surprise people.  Mechanics that are new to a player are a form of surprise.

My view is that what’s important in games is how the mechanics work together, the whole not the parts.  A focus on innovative mechanics strikes me as one step removed from the focus that novice game designers have on “great ideas.”  As I and many other designers have explained many times, ideas for games are virtually worthless.  It’s the execution of the ideas, how the ideas are carried out, that matters.  In other words a focus on innovative mechanics, mechanics that have not been used before, misses the point of games and game design.  To me games are 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.  A focus on innovation implies the reverse of those percentages, and implies that ideas are much more important than execution.  I don’t think so. The point is to have a game that’s enjoyable for a target market to play, not to have a game that is in some way “new”.

Having said that, obviously there are game players who value “new”. Game designers may be occasionally excited by the appearance of a new mechanic that they can then incorporate into their games.  And there is certainly that the cited reaction to an innovative game (as opposed to innovative mechanic) such as Dominion: we now have dozens of deck building games.

I wonder if the modern habit of playing a game only a few times, then moving on to the next one, is in part a quest for “something new”, fundamentally a hunt for games that aren’t kind of boring after the first few plays.  On the other hand, keeping in mind that many contemporary board and card games are much more puzzles than games, just as most single player video games or puzzles, we can understand why people lose interest after playing a few times and “figuring out the puzzle”. 

A focus on game mechanics also strikes me as reflecting a “component” notion of game design rather than a holistic notion.  It views games as collections of mechanics.  This implies that games are mechanical/scientific rather than artistic.  Yes, there are certainly mechanical aspects, but to me a game is greater than the sum of its parts, it's the combination that matters, not the individual mechanics.  Of course, I also view games as models of some reality (it can be a fictional reality).  You may evaluate the individual parts of a model but you mainly evaluate the model as a whole. 

The exception to that “model view” is wholly abstract games.  An entirely abstract game is necessarily a collection the mechanics, but to me it needs to be very few mechanics: there is no reason to obscure what’s going on by throwing lots of mechanics or other information into the mix.  Now if a game is a puzzle to be solved, which seems to be a common view in the Eurostyle, then complexity helps make the puzzle harder to solve.  I view most games as competitions, player versus player, and I don’t want too many mechanics to get in the way of the interaction of the players.  In the typical Eurostyle the interaction of the players tends to be minimized, just as competition tends to be minimized, and we have something more akin to puzzles.  There are of course Eurostyle games that are not typical, and these are often the ones that become popular over the long term.

Now if you play games because they have new/"unique" elements, not because you're interested in winning or mastery or a model or any of the other things people are usually interested in, then I guess perceived innovation (not encountered before by the player) makes a difference.

I must also ask, if you play a game because it's innovative (as far as you know), does that mean you lose interest after playing once (or twice) because it's no longer an innovation to you?

I also see an assumption in some quarters that “innovative equals good.”  But if you think about it, most "innovative" games are likely to be weak if not junk.  Thankfully most of them aren't published.  Why is it likely?  When you innovate for the sake of innovation, as I'm sure many try to do, then you're ignoring what's more important about the game, how it plays and whether players enjoy it.  If you deliberately include innovative elements, more often than not your innovation will at least be unsuitable for the situation, if not out-and-out junk in and of itself.

Video Games
Often the originally innovative game fails/has little impact, and a follow-up becomes much more well-known.  The Sims video game was thought of as a highly innovative game.  Many years before there was a video game called Little Computer People that did much the same thing but got little attention.  In other words The Sims was not nearly as innovative as most people thought it was.  But (in all its incarnations) it’s the best-selling PC game of all time.

AAA video games cost so much to produce that innovation is very risky. There's innovation in video games nowadays, but only from the indie publishers.  Big games are dominated by sequels.   All 13 games listed in a recent PC Gamer magazine as “most anticipated” by readers are sequels.   All of them.

AAA games are also straightjacketed by genres.  Players expect games to behave in the way other games of a genre behave, but slightly better.  World of Warcraft isn't innovative, nor is Call of Duty, but they dominate revenues.

Social network games seem to be dominated by a lack of innovation, at least if we judge Zynga’s Facebook games, which are said in some cases to be shameless copies of other games.  Zynga’s well-known games are repeats of a formula.   Zynga has become such a big company and makes so much money off their standard games that they can’t risk devoting a lot of effort to a entirely different sort of game.

Innovation in the sense of new methods is not important to success in the video game world.  It’s enough to use old methods in a slightly new way, much as all those 13 sequels are likely to do.  Angry Birds is absolutely not an innovative game, not even in the limited sense of using old methods in a slightly new way, but it has parlayed its atmosphere–it’s not a theme because it doesn’t modify how the game is played– into a branding empire.  (There are certainly successful video games that are innovative, such as Minecraft.)

Another Definition
There seems to be another definition of innovation which amounts to “how many games did this game spawn.”  By that definition Dominion is very innovative, as are the founding games of each of the standard video game genres.  By that definition Britannia was pretty innovative.  Brit was innovative for a number of reasons, but not the most obvious one. One of the major elements of Britannia, each player controlling more than one nation and each nation having different point objectives, was actually used first in Ancient Conquest I.  Almost everything else about the two games is different, even the sequence of play, as a player’s nations in Ancient Conquest all play at the same time and can cooperate closely.

I agree with Geoff and Ryan that the two most innovative tabletop games of our time are Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: the Gathering, both of which spawned entirely new categories/genres of games (both tabletop and video).  Still, what’s really important about those games to game players is that they were outstanding play experiences, not that they were innovations.  (I might note that an obscure World War II role-playing game preceded Dungeons & Dragons. . .)

I suspect that you’re as likely to be innovative in a game design, if you’re not trying to be, as those who are trying to be. 

Thursday, December 08, 2011

More December 2011 Miscellany

I expect I'll be at PrezCon in late February in Charlottesville, VA.  I'm scheduled to talk about game design at 9PM Friday evening.  This will be an hour of (mostly) me talking, then an hour or more of questions, answers, and discussion.

Another review of Dragon Rage, by Michael Barnes of fortressat.
Yes, it is expensive, though it will be carried once more by FunAgain and that eliminates the enormous shipping expense.

The old SPI "simulations" weren't games, they were puzzles.  Players would "solve" the puzzle, which would cause the result to be just as history dictated.  The problem with that is that history is what happened, which often was not what was most *likely* to happen.  "History is not merely what happened: it is what happened in the context of what might have happened" — H R Trevor-Roper

I've decided to self-publish in electronic formats three (or more) books that are, for the most part, reprints of material I've written for magazines and the Web.

One will be RPG material, including everything from Dragon and White Dwarf as well as other magazines (I always sold only First World Serial Rights back then; in fact, I stopped writing for Dragon when they required all rights).  It will also include character classes I've used in my own First Edition AD&D campaigns since then.  I'll have to decide whether to include the "D&D Army" rules that I devised and used, as well.

Another will be Diplomacy material, especially Diplomacy variants.

The third will be other, non-RPG  non-Diplomacy, gaming material, especially blog posts and Gamasutra/GamerCareerGuide articles.

I have no idea when these will be available.  Getting the old (pre-computer) stuff into publishable shape is a chore, often requiring scanning.  Almost certainly they won't be available until after my game design book from McFarland is available, whenever that will be.

I read a story in the book the *Ultimate History of Video Games* the reminds me of a frequent debate in games.  That debate is, does it make sense to keep information hidden in a game if that information is in fact trackable.  My view is that it does not make sense because somebody will track it.  Other people take the position that it's perfectly reasonable and anybody who does track it is a jerk.  I'd say the person is just doing what he can to win the game but in any case as soon as somebody does then that's the end of any sense to keeping the information hidden.

So here's the story.  Ralph Baer, the inventor of the Magnavox Odyssey that was the first home game playing console, even before the Atari 2600, also invented a camera to use with arcade machines.  The idea was that when somebody got a high score the camera would take a photo of them and that photo would be displayed on the machine.  When they tested this at an arcade, for the first day it worked well.  On the second day some wiseguy got a chair, stood on it, and mooned the camera.  And that was the end of the product.

Just as, when somebody actually tracks the information, that should be the end of the notion that you try to hide trackable information.

ALL games have some form of victory points, but in many there is no accumulation during the game.  The fundamental reason to have VP accumulate during a game is to end the game before it's really "ended", that is, someone completely dominates.  (Points accumulate in Settlers of Catan even though they're not overtly tracked, with the important difference that you can lose points.)  (Lots of subsidiary reasons for points, of course.)  In the games where there is no accumulation during the game, scoring the point ends the game.  Chess, for example (score one point when opposing king is checkmated).  If chess clocks were not used then we might want victory points and a time limit for chess, because games could potentially last ridiculous lengths of time.  The point values of the pieces would become the points.

Video games are getting more and more into fantasies of omnipotence and omniscience etc.

In Payday: the Heist and Diablo III, I read, you can switch from one character class to another without penalty.  I suppose that means you don't have to worry about making a poor decision, so it makes the game easier to play.  I understand it continues to get easier and easier to aim, to get your hit points back, and so forth.

More and more it seems that a game needs to have a "Wow factor" to attract attention of players.

Because of the influence of big movies (that often use CGI) and the Internet, people expect a wow factor to be flashy.  "Mind blowing" is the phrase I see, and when I see it I think "you must have a weak mind if blows your mind!"

Yet chess, Britannia and most other wargames, Tetris, lots of games are not that way at all.  And might have more trouble penetrating the market now than in the past.

I've noticed among young people that often a person is given as much credit for an intention, as for what he or she actually does.  So if someone intended to do such-and-such, it's OK that they didn't.  This is taken to extremes as in "I intended to come to class" but failed to wake up.  Someone much older is likely to say, one can have some sympathy, but the fact is you didn't come.  And act accordingly.

In a way, equating intentions and actions puts a stamp of approval on incompetence.  I remember the phrase "the road to hell is paved with good intentions".

A D&D analogy:
1st and 2nd edition AD&D is like American football in how it requires cooperation of different classes to achieve success.
3rd edition D&D is like basketball, where one person can so easily dominate (though even in basketball, it's usually teams with the best teamwork that win)
4th edition is like soccer, where the range of skill requirements is more circumscribed than in American football, but cooperation is definitely required for success.  The character classes in 4th, despite their seemingly infinite differences, all amount to a kind of sameness relative to the differences in character classes in 1st-2nd D&D.  At least, that's the way it has seemed to me.

In modern first person shooters, the contrast of photo-realism to "make it seem real", and the ridiculous events that occur (no fear of dying, extraordinarily easy aiming, ammo and miraculous healthpacks just lying around, etc.) could be related to the board wargamers who want games that make them feel like they're "there" even though the games are not in any real sense "realistic" even within the confines of the tabletop.

Most of the people who play board and card games at our college club are also (and often primarily) role-playing gamers.   (Heck, even for me, the only game I play strictly for pleasure is Dungeons & Dragons.)  I'm not entirely sure why, but I'd speculate that amongst Euro game players, that is, people who primarily play Euro games rather than other types of tabletop games, the proportion who play role-playing games is much smaller.  (Probably the proportion who play video games is also smaller.)

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Strategic Thinking Is Becoming Rare Among Game Players

When I was a teenager one of the best aspects of the new Avalon Hill style board wargames such as Stalingrad and Afrika Korps was that they were games of strategy.  They were not family games, they were not games dominated by chance although chance was involved, they were games of skill where a good grasp of strategy made a big difference.

These games were succeeded as my favorite at age 19 by Diplomacy, a game with no overt chance elements, and a game for more than two players rather than for two, so that playing the player became much more important and playing the system much less.  But it was still a game where strategy was very important, though strategy at a higher level: grand strategy.

When I began to design games in my mid-teens, before I knew Diplomacy, I designed games of strategy and grand strategy.  All of my published games from “back when” are games of strategy and grand strategy.  They can be described as “chess-like” even when dice and more than two players are involved.  (Though I have to say that I “retired” from playing chess itself when I was 15: it was too much like work, perhaps because there was no chance element and it was too puzzle-like.)

But that was 30-40 years ago.  Lately I have found that strategic thinking amongst gamers is in short supply, and many prefer a less cerebral form of entertainment that is more like playing cards than playing chess.  Consequently, many of my recent games are “screwage games”, relatively short games that allow the players to competitively mess with their friends and acquaintances in a relaxed context.  This kind of game does not appeal to Eurostyle gamers who are accustomed to an absence of direct competition, but it appeals quite strongly to most college-age gamers.  These are definitely games that you play with and against other players, far from multi-player solitaire or the puzzles disguised as games that are now quite popular in the Eurostyle.

In game design terms, players of screwage games are happy to compete, and prefer to adapt and improvise rather than to plan [see].  They prefer fewer plausible choices rather than many choices [see]. They prefer games that they don’t have to study to master.  In terms of “strategic depth” they like relatively shallow games, and by their nature screwage games are not strategically deep.

Before going any further let’s look for some definitions.

Google: “strategy  Noun:   
    A plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim.
    The art of planning and directing overall military operations and movements in a war or battle.”

Wikipedia: “Strategy, a word of military origin, refers to a plan of action designed to achieve a particular goal. . . Building on the work of many thinkers on the subject, one can define strategy as "a comprehensive way to try to pursue political ends, including the threat or actual use of force, in a dialectic of wills – there have to be at least two sides to a conflict. These sides interact, and thus a Strategy will rarely be successful if it shows no adaptability."

Notice that planning is central to both definitions. 

So why is strategic thinking in games less common now than it used to be?  My view is that people are much less likely to plan ahead for any purpose, not just in games, now than they were 35 years ago.  Part of this is the very large number of distractions of modern life.  Furthermore, people have been trained by advertisements and government regulation to believe that someone else will take care of them and that they don’t have to take responsibility for themselves, and that means feel less need to plan.  Furthermore , they’re less likely to have the patience to time their actions most effectively, compared with 35 years ago.  This is the “microwave” age, the age of instant gratification, the age of convenience. 

Players are also less willing to think when they play a game than they were 35 years ago.  Video games, after all, tend to emphasize movement and action/reaction rather than thought.  Students are taught to minimize logic and precision and rely on their feelings.  “Use the Force Luke” (rather than rely on a targeting computer to destroy the Death Star) is from 1977's Star Wars but applies more and more to modern attitudes as time passes.  The result is that what I’d think were obvious points about strategy are lost on the average board and card game player, even those who play every week.  Most people “don’t have it”. 

There has been a shift in the kind of thinking that people bring to games as well.  Strategic thinking has been displaced, where people are willing to think about what moves to make as they play a game, with another kind of thinking which video games and Euro-style games encourage and which allows success in those games.  That is puzzle-solving. 

What’s the difference?  Military strategy is closely related to maneuver, use of forces, and economics.  These are rarely prominent in puzzle-solving.  Military strategy depends heavily on interaction with the opposition, and the best generals often correctly anticipate what the opposition will do and take advantage of that anticipation.  In puzzles there is no opposition, nor can you “read the mind” of a puzzle the way you can read the mind of an opponent. 

So in the largest sense strategy is about outwitting or out-thinking intelligent opposition, while puzzle solving is a completely different skill.  Strategy involves both logic and intuition (“yomi”, reading the mind of the opponent).  Puzzle-solving is also logic and intuition, but differs in an important respect.  If you use trial and error in strategy, you lose, while in puzzle solving you can fail to solve the puzzle but in most cases that does not mean that you lose, you just try again.  This is why you can resort to trial and error.  In a video game you can just keep playing again and again until you succeed.  In a Eurostyle game you lose, but the elements of competition have been strongly minimized in typical Eurostyle games so that people are much less likely to feel disappointed about losing.  They focus more on what they’re doing in a game than on the possibility of losing.  In a strategy game the possibility of losing looms larger.

Whatever the reasons, in practice, in game playing we have many more players now who prefer to improvise, or to adapt to circumstances with short-range plans, and fewer players who are willing to plan for the long term, which is a necessary element of strategy.  Yes, we know the old maxim that a plan does not survive beyond first contact with the enemy, but that is less true in a game than in reality, and even in reality we know that the planning itself can include contingencies to deal with what happens when we first contact enemy.

When I was 24 Diplomacy was succeeded as my favorite game by Dungeons & Dragons, about as different from Diplomacy as two games can be.  Much of the reason was that I no longer was keen to play against other people and D&D is a cooperative game, though there is still intelligent opposition as conducted by the referee.  For the rest I had always been a fan of fantasy, and the role-playing aspects of being a goodguy, a hero (not a thug like the typical D&D player), attracted me.  D&D is very versatile insofar as it can be played as a strategic game or it can be played as a game where players have to adapt or improvise, or it can even be played as a semi-random game (what I used to call “lever pulling/button pushing D&D”). 

Moreover, it can be played as a wargame or it can be played as storytelling, and I played it is a wargame.  To me D&D is a microcosm of life because it shows that sometimes no matter what you do things are going to come out against you, but it also shows that you can minimize the number of times that you need to depend on luck to get you through.  Despite it being a game where lots of dice are rolled you can play it so that you rarely have to get a particular role to succeed.  (I’m talking about first edition D&D.  Fourth edition D&D is not much like first edition.  Much of the decision-making and strategic depth has been removed and it’s really hard to fatally screw up, rather like World of Warcraft and most other video games.)

D&D is still my favorite commercial game to play, but my favorite “game” is the game of designing games. And I don’t design role-playing games.  Perhaps because, as one boardgamer said, they are too “loosey goosey”, too imprecise, for my taste in design.

Someday I’ll get my long spiel about what constitutes strategy and strategic depth in a game up to speed.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

December Miscellany

I've posted a long piece about teaching game design in my blog about teaching game design ( )   I decided it was not exactly suitable for this blog.

I recall reading about someone who claimed to have invented the game Battleship.  That "inventor" was raging at Milton Bradley for stealing his idea.  The only problem is, Battleship is a traditional game that existed long before MB's plastic version.  I read about it in a book when I was a kid (more than 40 years ago), a game you played with graph paper.  And we did just that.

Monopoly, I understand, is another game with some "traditional" origins.    Parker Brothers claimed they bought it from a designer named Charles Darrow,  but finally we learned that it was a game that had kicked around in many forms for many years before PB published it.

Stratego is another game derived from something older.  L'Attaque, patented in 1909 in France (by a woman, which makes it even more of a rare bird), is identical to Stratego except for having one less column of squares and four fewer pieces per side.  It was published in 1909 by H. P. Gibsons in England (and may also have been published in France).  Several other games were designed in England using the same system (Dover Patrol, Tri-Tactics, Aviation).  After World War II a Dutchman sold Stratego to publishers Jumbo, who licensed it to the original American publishers (now owned by Hasbro).  And quite recently Hasbro lost the license, which was sold to Spin Master.

But it's all derived from a game that is long out of patent.  It's the name "Stratego" that might be protected by trademark. The game idea cannot be protected by copyright, of course.

Little-known fact: I am one of the few people to have had a Stratego-like game published.  Swords & Wizardry was published in Britain around 1980 by the same company that published L'Attaque and its derivatives, H. P. Gibsons, also the original publishers of Britannia.

What's important in a game is not what the context (theme, atmosphere) says is important, it's what you need to do to succeed (to win, for most people).  But what sells the game off store shelves is the context, not what you actually do.  This reminds me of the old maxim, probably still true, that a good novel with a poor cover will sell poorly, while a poor novel with a good cover will sell better.

Game design is "what happens next. "  You can watch movies or read novels to find out what happens next, you can play games to find out what happens next, and you can also design games to find out what happens next.

Puzzles have a "saddle point" or dominant strategy.  A solution.  Games don't.

Formal puzzles usually involve no chance element, making it more practical to have a saddle point.  When you introduce uncertainty/chance elements, whether in the system or through players, you get further away from puzzles and more towards games.

In-game "minigames" (not uncommon in video games) are a mark of the easily-bored nature of young people in our culture, and of the repetitive nature of many video games.  The players are given something else to do (the mini-game) because the ordinary gameplay is likely to become boring!

Wargames are models of reality (even if that reality is fantasy or science fiction).  Euro games are "artificial constructs."

Sooner or later, game consoles (wannabe computers) will become impractical to manufacture, because computers will offer an equal or better experience on one hand, and mobile platforms will offer nearly equal with more convenience on the other. Consoles will be squeezed out. The next console generation will be the last, I'd guess.

Businesses "immune" to the "digital Tsunami":
(that's the coming dominance of digital formats in games, books, already seen in music; which also tends to make people expect to get such things for free, and pirate them if they're not free)

Library book business.  Not so much immune as well behind, libraries are now getting into lending digital books, but it may be quite a while before the library as a place to go and browse books goes away.

Tabletop game business.  Yes, they can be played online, but that takes a lot of time and work, and can be shut down by publishers.  And it doesn't provide the play and social interaction of face-to-face games.

I'm not a typical boardgamer.  I'm interested in the game, not in "being there".

Command and Conquer Ancients advertises: "You're in command".  I don't care: I'm playing a game.

(And as I explained in Against the Odds magazine, people who think they're in anything like the situation of a commander in a real war are fooling themselves big-time.)

For me, "you are there" is Dungeons & Dragons and other RPGs.  But RPGs aren't as precisely-defined as boardgames.  I recall one person who likes the "You're in command" idea say he didn't like RPGs because they're too loosey-goosey (his phrase), he wants to know exactly what he can do.

Hardcore video gamers concentrate on the game, not on the story, when they play, but it's the game (the wish-fulfillment, actually) that tends to draw them to playing in the first place.  Is story for casual video gamers?

This should all fit together somehow, but I haven't put it together yet.

I'm trying to model something, in most of my games, so I don't mind using the same mechanism again as long as it works for the model.  Euro gamers generally aren't modeling something, they're throwing mechanisms together, so they want to use new ones.  There are exceptions, of course.

 Is there something in video gaming that worships "thousands (millions) of possibilities" even though you're not going to use even a tiny fraction of them?

Kind of like the advertising about "your MP3 player can hold 10,000 songs" even though no one has 10,000 that they like pretty well.

So if this focus on number of songs is "sound bathing", what's the former: "option bathing"?

When does the desirable variety of replayability become option bathing?