Thursday, September 26, 2013

A revolution in card printing capabilities may affect game design

In the OneBlogShelf blog Steve Wieck of DriveThruCards describes what he calls a revolution in card printing capabilities.  His company is no longer tied to traditional sheet printing methods and can now print individual cards, though still using ink rather than toner for higher quality.  He suggests that this can cause a revolution and how card games are designed:

    1. Offer your deck-building or customizable card game as a collection of single card products, selling as singles at prices you determine
    2. Allow your fans to create their own cards and have them printed.
    3. Imagine a card game where no two cards ever printed for the game are the same.
    . . . the idea of letting a game's community take over the design of new cards will seem alien to many publishers, at least until some pioneer marches boldly out into the daylight, engages their community in a viral community design and purchase loop, and reaps the rewards of doing so.
There is certainly some potential here for group designed games, but as a game designer and one who has taught game design.  It reminds me of the weakness of what often amounts to random design.

First, it reminded me of a game some of my students were making.  To set up pieces at the start of the game they took the pieces in hand and dropped them on the center of the board, and took the randomly determined positions.  This is a bad idea in most cases.  You are the game designer, you're the one who should pick the optimal setups, not let it be determined randomly, unless you have decided that a random set up is a sufficient improvement in replayability to compensate for the randomness of it.  Even then you should use controlled randomness not complete randomness.  For example, if you want to randomly place villages on four quadrants of a map, make sure that about the same number are in each quadrant.  But letting players design cards is a lot closer to complete randomness than to a game designer's best judgment.

Has there been a situation where players are able to make up rules, even if they are vetted by the person in charge?  Yes, role-playing games, especially old D&D.  I recall advising referees more than 30 years ago to make players earn their advantages, not to let players manufacture them through additional rules, because the average player was going to take every advantage he or she could get, rather than consider what was good for the game.

And is there a situation where official or semi-official rules made by variety of people proliferate to the detriment of the game?  Yes Third Edition D&D, where the D20 license and Wizards' own need to produce new products resulted in vast numbers of character classes and skills and feats, and an escalation of foolishness in the rush to have every character be a "one-man army".  If a referee didn't ban all that additional material he was doomed to a weak game, a sort of escalating arms race as players tried to find the additional material that most benefited them or that most advantaged their playing style.

Of course we should also remember that professional designers who have the benefit of the typical separation in CCGs between the people who conceive new cards and the people who develop them and decide whether to actually use them, still publish bad cards that then need to be banned because the have unfortunate effects on the game.  Now translate that to ordinary players making up cards that they think are cool - and which are probably designed to benefit their style of play.  You are going to have lots of bad cards.  (Someone said the other day that Yu-Gi-Oh has become a very brief game because there are so many powerful (over-powerful?) cards.  If that's true, then the designers have lost control of the game, even though they're the ones issuing the new cards.)

So let's recognize the other side of this revolution: players being players, if you let players help design the game it's likely to be a worse game than it was before, unless your primary objective is mere variety.  Now it's certainly true that variety has more or less replaced gameplay depth as the desirable objective for contemporary game design, so this may work out for some people.  But to me the game designer should control what's IMpossible in a game, though this is not the extreme kind of control a novelist has because a novelist controls exactly what is possible.  The game designer sets the constraints and borders and walls, but lets players make things happen within those walls.  If players are designing the cards or the rules - and of course cards are part of the rules - then the game designer loses much of his ability to define constraints. 

But just as there are ways of interactive storytelling where the listeners also tell the story, there may be ways for games to prosper without many constraints.  Neither idea attracts me, I'm afraid.  Constraints actually encourage creativity.  I'd much rather have a professional writer convey the story to me, and I'd much rather have a professional game designer arrange the game for me.


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