Thursday, April 25, 2013

Three hats: the three parts of creating games

(While I begin by talking about RPGs, I am later going to generalize to all kinds of tabletop and video games - “sit-down games”.)

When I used to write lots of articles about RPGs for White Dwarf, Dragon, and other magazines three decades ago, I mostly wrote two kinds of things: game rules, and advice about how to play and especially how to referee Dungeons & Dragons successfully.  I rarely wrote settings; and only occasionally in the magazines did I write adventures, which are a combination of rules and setting/story.

When I thought about this further I realized that this can be generalized to any role-playing game: the person who creates the game is taking on three writing/designing tasks to a greater or lesser extent, the rules for the game, advice about how to play the game, and the setting (which includes at least the story that comes from hiSTORY) for the game.  Supplements to the game are almost always about setting/story, often with additional rules.  World-settings often include advice about how to use the setting, about how to successfully incorporate it into a campaign or base a campaign on it. 

TSR published several settings for AD&D such as Dark Sun, Spelljammer, Arabian Nights, and Forgotten Realms, after the original Greyhawk setting.  Some of Greyhawk was included with the AD&D rules, because it was Gary Gygax’s original campaign, but for the most part the original rules assumed a more or less Tolkien-like fantasy setting without being specific.

A world-setting supplement may be almost entirely about the “world,” about things like the geography of the world, how magic works in the world, who or what rules the world, and the history of the world.  If it’s the more narrow sense of setting, as in the context for a particular adventure, along with a story (more or less), then much of the “setting” is descriptions of locations and NPCs.  In adventures there are also rules in the sense of how the various obstacles to success work, as in “if the character walks across the pit trap there is a four in six chance it will activate and he will fall in”.  There may be additional monsters, magic items, and other explicit rules for play.

The world-setting is like the background of a novel, or a sort of bible, with the story being the history of the world.  The adventure setting is much more like a short story or (sometimes) novella.

Of course, some “world-settings” aren’t for an entire world, but may be for a single city and its environs (as in the Freeport series) or for a particular country or region (Arabian Nights).  They’re usually large enough to provide the basis for an entire campaign, and that’s why they’re usually called “world-settings”, for the player characters they are the entire world.

Video game RPGs, being based in software, usually tie world-setting and rules together inseparably.  If there’s a new world-setting, it’s usually an entirely new game to buy.

Some TSR tabletop world-settings for first and second edition AD&D were later adapted, if only in a magazine (e.g. Spelljammer in Dungeon Magazine), for the Third Edition rules.  Settings generally can be adapted to more than one ruleset.  Tolkien’s Middle-earth has been adapted several times, and many other settings that originate in movies or novels are then adapted to several rule sets over the years (e.g. Star Wars).


So you can write an RPG supplement that is almost entirely a description of a new world setting that can be adapted to many different games, such as the Freeport series and a great many other “D20" works.  Or you can write one that is specifically adapted to a particular game by including many rules for that game, for example the original Spelljammer setting for AD&D.  Or you can write an RPG supplement that has a specific setting and lots of rules for that setting, for example a dungeon adventure.

The more rules you include the more there’s a need for playtesting, though I’m pretty sure that rules included with world-settings often get little or no playtesting.  Someone who writes rules and doesn’t include advice such as examples of how to play is probably not doing an optimal job.

A Broader View

You can write a set of RPG rules that has virtually no setting attached, for example the free-to-download Fate rules.  But that set of rules is probably going to include some advice about how to use it successfully.  Think about it, any example of how to play, unless it’s very specifically about a particular rules, is a form of advice.

And of course you can write a supplement that is almost entirely advice about how to play RPGs successfully, either a specific RPG or RPGs in general such as Robin's Laws of Good Gamemastering.

Adventures can be largely about rules or largely about story.  In the early days the adventures tended to be about rules, partly because they were written by people who were longtime wargamers.  More recently, published adventures are much more often strongly story-based, partly because many of the writers are frustrated (or even successful) novelists rather than wargamers.  Also there are so many adventures available that many people who buy adventures aren’t likely to actually run the game, but like to read them - and naturally it’s the story that attracts them more than the rules.

The easy-to-remember form of all this is that the person writing RPG material can be a game designer, a teacher, and a storyteller/historian, with the latter divided into “short stories” (the adventures) and long stories (the world settings).

Not Just RPGs

Once I arrived at this conclusion I realized that any tabletop or video game is a combination of these three things.  There are always rules or we wouldn’t have a game.  (Though some improvisational RPGs are pretty light on rules, these days.)  There is often advice about how to play the game in the form of examples of play if nothing else, but also strategy hints.  Completely abstract games have no setting or story, and there are many abstract tabletop games that are given a setting or story that actually has nothing to do with the game (this has been common in Eurogames).  But thematic games generally include a (his)story and setting, and many of the AAA video games are very thematic.

Puzzles also can have these three elements, but frequently have only one.  Most puzzles include little or no advice about how to “play” the puzzle. Tabletop puzzles rarely include a setting/story, whereas many video game puzzles, such as “adventure games,” are heavily connected to a story.  But all puzzles have to include an objective, which is a form of “game rule.”

Some toys have these three elements but typically a toy has neither rules nor goals, and many toys have no story - the “player” makes up the story.  So I can make paper boats - there are rules about how to make paper boats, but not what to do with them - and no particular story to follow: I make up my own.  So if I decide to put the paper boats in a tub of water, set them afire with burning paper airplanes, and sing “Stars & Stripes Forever” as they sink, that’s not something that was inherently part of the toy.  (My fifth grade teacher actually did this when she was a kid in days before TV - she was cool.)  Or if I have a set of race cars there’s an obvious implication that they’re going to be in a race but I have to decide everything else.  The striking thing about many modern commercial toys is that they almost always include a setting and often a story, so that the kids don’t have to figure out the main parts of usage themselves (with consequent deleterious effects on the development of imagination).

In video games of course much of what we’re talking about is incorporated into the software and not something that someone reads.  The rules are enforced by the software so that the player must play according to the rules (barring glitches in the programming of course!).  The advice comes in the form of the tutorials, and sometimes in all of the hints/quests/other pointers that advise the player what to do.  But video games tend to be light on advice about how to play because the software forces the player to follow the rules. 

The settings in a video game, whether short-term or long-term, are less often explicitly described than in published paper role-playing games.  This is partly because a video game offers other ways to describe and especially show the setting, and also because video gamers generally don’t read about the setting even when their character finds a virtual “book” or scroll that describes some of the setting - they just don’t bother.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Buyers versus players

It’s going to take a while to get to the point of buyers versus players: please bear with me.

In earlier posts I’ve wondered what the effect of free to play (F2P) video games would have on tabletop gaming.  We already know that it’s a disruptive force in video gaming.  F2P games have helped put pressure on AAA console games and have helped ruin the market for mid-level console games.  They also put video game developers in a dilemma, because F2P requires the game to hold back some of the things that make it enjoyable in order to persuade the players to spend real money. It creates a divide between the players who don’t spend money, and consequently must spend time to equal the advantages of those who spend money, or who simply cannot attain the same advantages.  This is why some people call free to play “free to die”, “free to lose”, or “pay to win”. 

As for the effect on tabletop games, on the one hand we could hope that if players are buying fewer video games they’ll have more money to buy tabletop games.  On the other hand, the perception that games are free might make people less likely to spend $40 or $60 and more on a tabletop game.

We certainly see that the market for individual tabletop games is decreasing rapidly, although it may be that the total number of tabletop games sold is steady or even increasing.

At the NC State Tabletop Game Club only one of the people who likes to play my strategic games actually buys tabletop games.  But that can also be said for the people who like to play some of the other tabletop games that are common at the club.  Most of the board and card games played at the club are either brought by a few individuals or are owned by the club.  This is good for getting playtesters because I’m one of the individuals who brings games, it’s just that I bring prototypes rather than published games.  There’s another gent who brings prototypes and usually finds players, though his games are very different from the ones I’ve been bringing this year.  In fact we have only two persons who buy commercial games out of about 20 regular board and card game players.

In effect, the gaming club or informal group offers much of the convenience of free to play games without the accompanying annoyances.  I cannot remember how often, 30+ years ago, more than one member of a game club owned the same game.  I suspect it was much more common, as there were far fewer games to choose from.

In another contrast, the majority of the club members (we average 35 a meeting) are actually Magic players.  And Magic players clearly have to spend a lot of money on their hobby as CCGs and TCGs are engines to persuade people to part with their money to buy the cards, complete with a new set of cards each year.  (Full disclosure: I do not like these card games because they are fundamentally as unfair as free to play games; though I’m aware that there are competition methods that avoid the problem that the person with more money to spend can make a better deck, other things being equal.)

What strikes me today, however, is that in the tabletop market we’re dealing with two groups of people, one a subset of the other.  The larger group is players of tabletop games.  The much smaller group is buyers of tabletop games.  For commercial success your game has to appeal to the buyers as well as to the gamers.  For success in having lots of people play your game you don’t need to appeal to the buyers strongly but if people don’t buy your game then you’re going to have to give it away.  And that’s not very practical because “giving away” usually means “print and play”/desktop publishing, and that kind of game lacks the visual and especially tactile appeal of a published boardgame or card game.

So, for example, wargaming persists partly because many of the wargame players are also buyers.  (Part of this may be that wargames are often purchased to be played solitaire.)  Wargames are too complicated for many gamers and too “violent” for many others to play, yet there’s still a small core of several thousand people who are willing to buy wargames.

But the wargames must feel and smell like wargames.  GMT, who mainly publish wargames, can sell games that aren’t wargamy, but sometimes they cannot get them past their P500 system.  They want 500 people to pre-order a game before they’ll risk publication, and because of an unfortunate experience the last time they broke that rule, they aren’t going to deviate again.  So a game that’s “semi-historical” - a model rather than an abstract game but one that doesn’t appear to be a “simulation” - might not be viable for their method.  In other words, the players (and buyers) may be out there, but GMT’s initial buyers - and what GMT thinks they can persuade them to buy - determine what is and is not published.

What Kickstarter and other crowd-funding sites provide is a connection to buyers, not so much to players.  KS supporters put their money where their mouth is, so to speak.

In the long run certain types of commercial tabletop gaming may not survive because even though there are many people willing to play there are not many willing to buy.

This is all exacerbated by the very large number of tabletop games that are published, which tends to make it hard for any individual game to sell really well.  In game clubs I think what happens is that a “hot” game is bought by the club, or by the most active individual buyer, and then other games the club members are interested in are bought by other members who may buy only one or two games a year.

Keep in mind the 21st century Internet zeitgeist that “everything is free,” combine that with free to play video games, and you’re likely to find fewer and fewer people willing to buy tabletop games.

It would be interesting to conduct a survey to try to pin down some of the attitudes of people.  The problem is that people often don’t do what they say they do, especially if they’re predicting future behavior, and a bigger problem is that many of the people who are just players cannot be reached by survey or are unlikely to reply even if they know the survey exists.  I doubt that more than one or two of the NC State members looks at Boardgamegeek more than a few times a year, and none of us (including me) is a regular denizen.

I haven’t considered game collectors who may occasionally be buyers but not players.  I figure most of the people who collect games also play games.  But I’m reminded of when my brother collected vast quantities of comic books and hardcover compilations of comic books.  I suspect he did not read anywhere near all of them.

Monday, April 01, 2013

2012-13 Game Designer Survey results

Game Designer Survey Results

In the last half of December through the first part of February I distributed a survey for game designers on the Internet: "This is a short (10 questions, five minutes or less) survey for people who call themselves game designers, video or tabletop (which is as good a way to define who game designers are as any other)." In the end, 142 respondents have had a game published commercially, along with 46 self-publishers, more than half of the 346 respondents. Here are the results.

Because this was conducted through the free surveymonkey service, I'm unable to provide much in the way of analysis of the results. It was a proof-of-concept survey, and curiosity survey, rather than one with a specific aim. So I can be accused of violating my own survey rule, "only ask a question that can change your [the survey-taker's] behavior".

With nearly 350 responses, I think the proof-of-concept part has worked. Ultimately I intend to use information from surveys, as well as interview questions, in support of a book about being a game designer, how to become one, how to behave in order to be taken seriously by publishers, how to market games, how to license games, intellectual property protection, etc. In other words, all the parts of a game designers life that I did not address in my "Game Design" book for lack of space, and because I wanted to focus on the actual process of design in that first book.

Some observations:
While nearly a third of respondents are under 30 years old, the 30-49 group constituted more than 60%.

Respondents play even more video games than tabletop, though how much that is skewed by the many free-to-play and short experience video games we cannot say.

Nearly 50% have been to game meetings of a thousand people or more.

More than 13% have a game related degree or are working toward one.

A veteran game designer commenting on the survey told me that video game designers rarely read books, though they might look at one to help them solve a specific problem. I asked about game design books (#6) because my experience as a teacher is that people are much less likely now, than decades ago, to read a non-fiction book. Some students now don’t even get a copy of the textbook for a class. Part of that fault may be that most game design books are enormous, offputting tomes, many of them quite expensive.

As many have said, you’re not really a game designer until someone other than you has played your prototype. About 85% of respondents have reached that stage in their work. I also asked how many designs respondents are working on (#9), because to my mind veteran designers work on several (if not many) at once. More than 55% of respondents are working on at least three games.

Not surprisingly, I left out some choices in the question about sources of information about games and game design (#8). I didn't even list blogs, though I've written a game design blog since 2004. Duh.

Many people did not answer question 10, perhaps I should have added an answer “I don’t know what this is.” Still, the number who have supported crowd-funding (171, about half of respondents) is impressive.

Many respondents offered comments. I have read them all, though I won't include many here.

An Excel spreadsheet of the results is at .

I am happy to hear suggestions for questions in any further surveys. You can get in touch with me through my blogs or website (

1. How old are you?
Up to 15
0.29% 1
0.87% 3
6.65% 23
23.41% 81
61.56% 213
6.65% 23
66 or older
0.58% 2

2. How many different video games did you play in the past year?
6.38% 22
24.35% 84
24.06% 83
22.03% 76
26 or more
23.19% 80
Comments 52

3. How many different tabletop games did you play in the past year?
5.80% 20
22.90% 79
18.26% 63
20.58% 71
26 or more
32.46% 112
Comments 32

4. What size (in attendance) game conventions or conferences have you attended (ever, not just this year)?
21.22% 73
less than 200
16.28% 56
200 to a thousand
13.08% 45
More than a thousand but less than ten thousand
19.48% 67
More than ten thousand
29.94% 103
Comments 63

5. Have you ever before taken a class about game design (not programming, art, sound, or other game production topics that are not game design) - multiple answers possible?
67.25% 232
Yes, in person
17.39% 60
Yes, online
9.86% 34
Yes, and I'm working toward a game-related degree
5.22% 18
Yes, and I have a game-related degree
8.12% 28
I have taught such classes in person
8.12% 28
I have taught such classes online
1.45% 5
Comments 27

6. About how many books specifically about game design have you read?
22.54% 78
39.02% 135
23.99% 83
10 or more
14.45% 50

7. The furthest you've gone in DESIGNING a game (video or tabletop) is (choose the first one in the list that applies):
Had game published commercially (other than self-published)
41.64% 142
Self-published a game (or tried to raise funds via crowd-funding e.g. Kickstarter)
13.49% 46
Prototype submitted to publisher/game company/funding company
8.80% 30
Others played my working prototype
22.58% 77
Made working prototype
4.69% 16
Started to make prototype
4.99% 17
Wrote down a lengthy description (such as a game design document)
2.64% 9
Wrote down ideas about one
1.17% 4
Talking with others about one
0.00% 0
Other (please specify) 31

8. Which of the following sources of information about games and game design do you read regularly (you decide what "regularly" means)?
BoardgameGeek Web site 214
Any console-specific game magazine 8
Board Game Designers Forum Web site 77
Fortress:AT Web site 15
Gamasutra Web site 156
GameCareerGuide Web site 24
Gameinformer magazine 23
GameInformer Web site 18
GameSpot Web site 26
IGDA Newsletter/Web site 37
Kotaku Web site 67
PC Gamer magazine 8
PC Gamer Web site 15
RolePlayGameGeek Web site 29
The Escapist online magazine 59
VideoGameGeek Web site 18
Other (please specify) 84

9. How many games are you currently designing (have done something with them in 2012)?
4.05% 14
40.75% 141
40.75% 141
More than 5
14.45% 50
Comments 14

10. How many game projects have you SUPPORTED (not run) on Kickstarter or other crowdfunding locations?
40.21% 115
27.27% 78
12.94% 37
7 or more
19.58% 56
Comments 88