Thursday, June 28, 2012

Book proofs arrive

The proofs for my book "Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish", have arrived for me to proofread and to make an index (tedious but necessary).  It is likely, given the printing schedule, to be available at GenCon in mid-August, where McFarland exhibits.  And it now seems likely I'll attend GenCon.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012


An amazing number of teenagers dream of making games for a living, if my informal surveys at local schools and colleges can be expanded to the entire generation.

There are all kinds of individual delusions (see ), but I’m talking about the big dream: “I’m going to be famous (and rich) as a video game maker.”

Perhaps the dreamers fall into two categories, those who dream without having any idea how to get there and no plan to get there, and those who dream while doing something to try to get there.  The first group is much the larger, as is likely true with any kind of dreaming.

Teachers are “stuck in the middle” when it comes to dealing with dreamers.  I’ve heard many people say “you shouldn’t destroy their dreams” while others, including me, think that people of adult age (as are college students) need to understand reality, and the ones who dream strongly and are willing to do something despite the odds still have a sufficient chance to succeed.  In other words, they won’t be put off because one teacher or even all their teachers show them that their dream will be very, very hard to attain. 

We have a K12 school system (in the USA) that has endeavored for years to avoid the negative, to pump up student self-esteem without requiring any action to earn self-respect.  People are awarded for participation, and competition is discouraged.  It is the opposite of the real world.   When students enter the real world they're shocked that they're not special, that people won't do things for them "just because" of who they are.  Part of a college teacher's job is to help students realize what the real world is like, to help students learn to take responsibility for themselves and to *earn* respect.

When kids are quite young then they’ll have many dreams and a teacher is probably going to encourage them to find dreams that really fit their personalities and desires.  When the student is close to graduating from high school or is in college then they need a big dose of reality so that they don’t waste years pursuing something that they may not be suited for.

A disconnection with reality seems to have become the norm amongst pre-adults.  In 2007 I had a class of high school students taking a college course in Web design.  We had a discussion about fame and about famous people, and I asked them to think of famous people from the local county.  In the end we could only come up with three football players, all of them retired by that point, and one deceased governor, out of 300,000 people.  We did a little math to show that it was quite unlikely that anyone from a group as small as the class would be famous.  Then I asked them how many of them thought they would be famous in their lives and about a quarter raised their hands.  I understand that this is not an unusual proportion for millennials (Gen Y).

This is an extreme of dreaming.  You can dream of being really good at something and enjoying it but that doesn't make you famous; these folks dream that they're going to be famous.

The tremendous lack of initiative of young people as a group (there are of course many exceptions) has really impressed (or depressed) me.  A "generation expert" speaking at a teachers’ conference described the "ambitious but aimless" tendencies of millennials (Gen Y). They have a goal, but not only don't know how to get there, they may not even be willing to pursue a path to it when the path is available. The expert's example: millennial says "I'm going to be an astronaut".  Well, that's very praiseworthy, but that requires a lot of work, you'll likely need at least a master's degree in some science-related subject, you have to take physics, math, etc. "Nope, I don't do math," says the millennial. Then how can you be an astronaut? "I'm going to be an astronaut". They don't see the connection between where they are and where they're going, but somehow it's going to happen.

Dreams are not a bad thing--as long as you DO SOMETHING about them.  Dreams should be about goals and how to attain them, not pure fantasies.  Talking about dreams isn't likely to go well, as you'll get a dose of reality from those with more experience.  Dreams on their own are empty, vacuous even.  You need to try to get results.

It’s common to hear people say “well, I could do as well if I tried that”.  But they never try it.  And while it’s usually not true in practice that they’ll do as well, sometimes it is, as with the 35-year-old Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan, Barsoom) in 1912 when he felt he could write stories as good as the ones he was reading in magazines.    The difference is, ERB went for it, he didn’t just talk about it.

Sid Meier, talking about the original Civilization game, said  "Most of the letters we'd get were almost a standard form.  They were like, 'Dear Sid.  I liked your game Civilization.  Here are the five things I would change to make it a much better game.'"  People who almost invariably had no clue about game design, but thought "I can do just as well as he did," told Sid where he went wrong. Ridiculous.  (And that’s as much the previous generation as millennials, in the early 1990s.)

Fantasist-dreamers can get to the point that they're personally offended by someone who describes a reality much different from the one the fantasist-dreamer would like to imagine.  And blames the person "delivering the reality".  For example, many people love RPGs so much and imagine what great work they can do, then meet the reality of a market that used to be very active, but collapsed several years ago leaving only a few companies able to make much profit.  Some of these folks are actually offended when someone describes how and why the market is quite small (beyond the efforts of those few big companies).

Before I taught curriculum game design, I was at a college where I mainly taught computer networking, and taught a game class on the side.  I was able to find enough students for the curriculum (for college credit) game class, even though there was no degree, but when I tried to do a continuing education (inexpensive, not-for-credit) class almost no one signed up.  A 16-year-old who did sign up said he tried to get some buddies to come as well, but they were "too busy".  I'd bet a lot of their busy-ness amounted to killing time playing video games; but if you're a person who thinks that somehow things will just work out, you're not likely to take the initiative to change the state of affairs.

Admittedly, this lack of interest in learning isn’t confined to younger people.  At my Origins seminars about game design this year I asked people how many had read a book about game design.  Very few.  Admittedly, until my book comes out, there is only one book that begins to discuss tabletop game design (though it’s free), and most of my audience were interested in the tabletop, not video games.  The audience did take the time to come listen to what I had to say.  But surely, if you’re really interested in game design, wouldn’t you read at least one of the well-known (video) game design books?

Remembering that this blog is about game design, my point is this: it won’t just come to you, you have to do it, you have to pursue it, you have to take every opportunity to learn about it (read!).  Then again, if you’re reading blogs like this, you’re already ahead of most of your contemporaries who dream of being game designers.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A Eureka Moment about Training, Education, Puzzles, and Games

I was thinking about a time when my department head came to my game design class unannounced to evaluate my teaching, and I wasn’t “lecturing” to the students.  They were working on game projects.  (This was not an introductory class.)  She seemed surprised that I wasn’t lecturing, but that may be because she typically taught introductory computer literacy style classes such as how to use Microsoft Office.  Classes that teach use of specific office software can be taught more or less by rote: if you want to make something bold you highlight it and press control-B or click the Bold button.  If you change margins you do thus and so.  And so forth.

These intro software classes don’t have to be taught entirely by rote but commonly they are, complete with what I call “monkey books”.  These books have students follow steps to accomplish something, but students tend to focus on getting through as rapidly as possible, and when they’re done they don’t know what they did and haven’t learned much.  Like the monkeys who, if they type long enough, type Shakespeare’s works . . .  You can learn from monkey books, but only if you want to learn and make the effort to learn.

Designing games is not and can never be taught by rote.  Teaching by rote is training, not education.  Education is about why you do things, why some things work and others don’t, about understanding what you’re doing.  Training is about exactly how you get a particular thing done.  I recognize that not everyone follows those definitions but I find it very useful to make this distinction, and other people with other purposes when defining education and training may make different distinctions.

Designing games is about education, not training.  Designing games is about critical thinking, and much of it is thinking, which is the antithesis of training.  You’re trained to do things automatically, without thinking.  (Reiner Knizia on twitter recently said, "To summarise my experience: Design is a way of thinking!")

Video game production at the outset can be taught by rote because people are learning how to use particular software, for example Maya or 3DS Max, or they’re learning how to program.  In the long run there is a process of education there, especially for programming, but in the short run for introductory classes a lot of it is simple straightforward “this is how you do it”.  There just isn’t much of that in game design.

But where the Eureka moment occurred was when I realized that an analogy can be made from this to games and puzzles.  A puzzle is something that has a solution, or perhaps several solutions, with the defining characteristic that once you figure it out the solution(s) always works.  So you can teach someone by rote how to beat the puzzle by teaching them the steps required.  It’s possible that those steps require certain skills such as hand-eye coordination levels that the person may not have attained, but once they attain those skill levels they can follow the solution and complete the puzzle every time, or as it is said in video games, “beat the game”.

A game does not have these kinds of solutions, and cannot be “beaten.”  To be good at the game requires something much more akin to education than training.  You have to understand why you’re doing what you’re doing, and when that isn’t the best thing to do, when something else is the best thing to do.  There is certainly problem-solving in games, but there aren’t solutions to the game as a whole that will always work.  Frequently this is the difference between having human opponents and having no opponent or a computer opponent, though computer opponents continue to become better over time.  Frequently this is the difference between, on th one hand, perfect information or uncertainty that can become predictable, typical in puzzles, and on the other hand uncertainty that cannot be predicted or accounted for by simple mathematical processes–the kind of uncertainty that comes from having several human opponents.

You can teach someone, by rote, how to win at Tic-Tac-Toe, or even Tetris, and you could for chess if anyone had completely solved the extremely complicated puzzle.  The checker program Chinook, as I understand it, plays by rote, playing what it knows to be the move most likely to lead to a win from whatever the current position is–no reasoning required.  You cannot teach someone how to win at Britannia or Dragon Rage, Diplomacy or even Risk, by rote, they have to understand how it all works and then think as they actually play.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Looking for a publisher for new edition of Britannia

After sales of 16,000 the FFG version of Britannia has sold out (though it's still available in some stores, FFG has no more).  I've received a notification from FFG that the contract is terminated.  So I can immediately begin looking for another publisher for a revised edition.

This will include three new versions of the game and a slightly-revised version of the current game published by FFG.  The idea is to offer games that will answer all of the major objections to the current version of Brit, and include the current version, so that the package will be suitable for a larger audience.  (The objections: too long, too scripted, too much chance; and occasionally, not sufficiently realistic in one respect or another.)

One new version is a much shorter game, played on a simpler map on the second side of the board.  There are two candidates for this version.  One of these uses battle cards instead of dice.  The other is very reduced (eight nations), and uses dice, but the method reduces the effects of chance. 

There is also a simpler and shorter version using the same map and sides (colors), so it is an alternative when there's not time to play the current version but players want something much like the original.  It also uses the less-random dice method.

The "Epic" version is more detailed and "historical" than the current version of Brit, and adds Ireland to the existing map.  The rules are not more complex, but there are more nations within the standard 16 turns, so it is a longer game.  The colors are quite different, so there is a new set of strategies to explore.

Obviously the short versions will have broader appeal than the Epic version.  But the Epic version will be "more historical" than the current version.

All of these versions exist and have been played by people other than myself, but are not sufficiently playtested.

Any suggestions as to publisher are welcome.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Origins 2012–-“Diminished”

This is not a “convention report” per se, as I had no interest in the banquets and awards, nor in the special guests, nor (with few exceptions) in new games and announcements about games.  The featured guests were media people--film and TV--rather than game people, though Wil Wheaton does a boardgame videocast (which I have not seen).  The others were Felicia Day and Adrienne Wilkinson. There were only two game design guests of honor (Rob Schwalb and Jeff Tidball), quite a departure from days past, one artist (Sandra L. Garrity), and one author guest (Aaron Allston, formerly a D&D writer).  SF author Timothy Zahn was scheduled to be around as well.  In years past Reiner Knizia, Richard Garfield, and Jim Dunnigan have been guests of honor, but if people of such stature in game design were present I did not see or hear of them.

The convention has moved from late June-early July to early June.  I heard this was to avoid a clash with GenCon, when they move to earlier in the summer.  But the result, so close to the end of the K12 school year, was that a lot of people evidently could not make it.  Next year Origins will be on 12-16 June.

I was surprised at how few people I saw in the game-playing rooms.  Further, there was a time when most tabletop game manufacturers came to Origins, but not now.  Wizards, Fantasy Flight, GMT, Columbia, and smaller outfits like Avalanche weren’t around.  There’s a lot more room in the exhibit hall than I remember from, say 2005.  I think the entire convention this year would fit into the exhibit hall used at GenCon.

I like the system used at WBC and PrezCon, where you pay your entry fee (about the same as Origins) and you can play any game or attend any event.  But those are boardgame conventions.  At GenCon, as I vaguely recall from my one visit, the seminars were free to attendees, but some tournaments and RPG events may have cost additional fees.  At Origins there are many more additional fees, and they get extreme with a fee for the wargame room, a fee for the boardgame room (though there is also open gaming), fees for so many seminars even though there’s plenty of room for listeners, and so on.  The exhibition hall and art show are free, fortunately, and that helps bring in the people paying the one-day $10 fee.  (The line for the one-day pass was very long on Saturday morning.)

I don’t go to conventions to play games, that’s something I can do much nearer home.  I like to attend relevant seminars and panel discussions, but this year there were fewer than usual (and half a dozen of those were cancelled because of a family emergency for the speaker).  For the past seven years at Origins (excluding 2009, when I didn’t attend) I’ve given free seminars about game design for beginners.  This comes partly from my inclination to teach, and partly (more recently) from a desire to publicize my game design book that’s due to be published late this summer.

There was also a scheduling problem as many seminars that were supposed to be free were listed in the program at $2, and others were listed at $2 more than intended. Only my Friday seminar had the $2 price, and some others that were repeated on the weekend were free then, but $2 on the weekdays.  It was as though someone had done a global addition of $2 to seminars up through 9AM Saturday.  In past years the master event list was sent to people who had submitted events, but this year it was not.  By the time I thought to check, I was able to find it online and then have the error removed, and this was reflected in the computer so that people who registered for the Friday talk were not charged, but at that point the schedule book probably had gone to the printers and could not be corrected.

When a person or group offers to do a seminar (or any other event such as a tournament or RPG session) they choose their time and day without knowing what else might be scheduled.  Scheduling is very important for the seminars, with late Saturday morning evidently being the best time, and Sunday morning the least.  There are also many more people at the con on the weekend than on weekdays.  This year I was able to schedule two hour blocks to allow for lots of questions and discussion, in previous years I’ve usually been restricted to one hour blocks.  (This may also reflect the small number of seminars altogether, there were more time slots available.) 

I was up in the seminar area a lot, and monitored attendance as I did so, to help me figure out the best times for the future.  Most seminars had about a dozen or fewer listeners.  The most-attended seminar I saw was mine at 11AM Saturday about “Starting a Game Design,” with 28 people.  I was surprised at this because by chance, at the same time, a game designers panel discussion was scheduled in the very next room, including some well-known designers who make a living in game design.   The count there was 23.  You might hope that Origins would catch such scheduling conflicts and give one or the other the chance to move to a non-conflicting time, but not this year.

Later Saturday afternoon I attended talks by James Ernest (formerly of CheapAss games) and Kenneth Hite (RPGs), both excellent speakers, but with only a dozen listeners. 

Ernest talked about themes in games.  He much prefers games with themes, disliking those with “themes” added on after design.  As I put it to him in a comment he agreed with, I prefer that a play I make in a game has a clear analog with reality, rather than simply being a move in a game–unless the game is out-and-out abstract.

Though there is no theme in Dominion, Ernest still enjoys playing the game.  I’m more extreme.  When it first came out I watched a game and saw that there was virtually no interaction amongst the players, a puzzle-contest.  People have told me that with certain cards there’s a lot more interaction, but it is still mostly about people individually solving the puzzle of the game, and I don’t care for that at all.  As for the lack of a real theme, Earnest says the theme was added after the game was finished, and in the end they took the medieval clipart they’d been using just to use something, and created the theme from it (which is what I would call an atmosphere, because it has no effect on gameplay or game design).

Hite talked about getting the heart of a genre right in an RPG.  It’s the story the genre tells that’s important, he says.  For example, at the heart of Noir is Sam Spade being beaten up or otherwise thwarted (as in, the police try to stop his investigation), yet from this he learns more information that ultimately lets him solve the mystery. 

I asked if Hite was familiar enough with Steampunk to say what the story is in that (to me) obscure genre.  He pointed out that it’s now more an aesthetic than a genre, the goggles and leather and glass and so forth (and corsets for women?).  Yet he then made an erudite comparison, saying that just as fairy stories helped Victorians reconcile with what was a pretty ugly past (and where the real fairy stories were “don’t go out on the moor at night or they’ll eat you), steampunk helps people reconcile with technology.  Modern technology is a “black box” to most people, but most people can understand that hot steam expands and can move things, and feel comfortable with the steam engines and “clockwork” of Steampunk.  Steampunk helps people come to terms with technology.  A remarkable answer.

I don’t look for new games at conventions, so I can’t say anything about such with a couple exceptions.  I did see two games that caught my eye, published by Catalyst Labs, who are known for miniatures, not boardgames.  Hibernia, played on a map of Ireland although it could be played as well on any map with the addition of a color scheme, is a bloodless wargame.  Using a color scheme on the map, plus the roll of a color die, four or fewer players expand throughout Ireland.   The designer explained it, and my comment was “clever”.  It felt like a traditional Eurogame, if only because it is a clever game and is not a model of any reality.  I first noticed it because I have a prototype “Hibernia” game, about actual Irish history (such as we know) in the Dark Ages; I’ll have to add a subtitle to it. 

Another Catalyst game is Balance of Power.  Though ostensibly about the Napoleonic world, it is even more abstract than Diplomacy, with a traditionally Euroish feel to it.  There is no uncertainty other than the intentions of other players.  With turn-based play, the other source of uncertainty in Diplomacy, from simultaneous movement, does not exist.   Nor is there the significant tactical aspect to it that counterbalances the strategic in Diplomacy.  “. . . Players carefully create and move Kings, Generals and Bankers as they capture territories and expand their empires.”  Bankers?  In Napoleonic Europe?  At first glance it appears that Prussia and Austria are “stuck in the middle” between England, France, Russia, and Turkey.  It may be clever--because of the apparent strategic imbalance I reserve comment--but it is not a model of any reality.   The game does allow secret negotiation, making it more like Diplomacy than games that only allow over-the-table negotiation.   And I’m told it’s a much shorter game than Diplomacy.

In both of these games, maneuver is very limited, and there are not many choices at a given time, as befits traditionally Euroish games.   Boardgames tend to be games of maneuver, but do not need to be. 

To go back to the convention as a whole, one publisher, who sells via Internet and conventions only with few exceptions, remarked that the retail game distribution system is broken.  He pointed out that even at the convention many people now scan the codes on games with their smartphones, then look for cheaper prices online, before deciding to buy.  Game shops are struggling or non-existent, suffering from competition with Internet sellers who sometimes go to extremes (as one US-based seller who offers Dragon Rage for $59, much less than the 50 euro list price dewspite the cost of shipping games from Europe to the USA).  Someone told me about an area of 600,000 people, part of a larger city, with not a single game shop.  I live near a sprawling 230th largest metropolitan area in the US, 300,000+ people with a high proportion of young people, where there are just two tabletop game shops, only one of which offers many boardgames.

When I walk into the Columbus Convention Center for Origins I always think initially, “why have I bothered to come here?” (it’s a thousand mile trip).  I actually skipped 2009.  Yet as in the past, I found some interesting people to talk with, though I missed one I wanted to meet.  People seem to like my talks, and this year on the spur of the moment I even recruited some to playtest a couple of my games.  I don’t know whether I’ll be back next year, it depends on how things go in the publishing world and on circumstances in general.  For most gamers, I have to suggest that GenCon is a much more interesting convention.  If it were an equal distance from where I live, I’d go to GenCon every year and frequently skip Origins.