Sunday, November 24, 2013

Consultants, Evaluators, and Agents

Not long ago someone wrote to me out of the blue and offered to pay me to act as a consultant to evaluate his tabletop game.  He’d read my book “Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish.”  He had been working on his game - I assume a tabletop game in the circumstances - for 20 years, and evidently felt that my advice would be worthwhile.  However, he was coming from somewhere else to Duke University for a visit, and that’s 70 miles from my location.

The game consultant or agent is in the same legal situation as a publisher, facing the possibility that someone will become litigious if the consultant/agent/publisher is associated with publication of a game that could in any way be misconstrued as similar to the game that was submitted to them.  One reaction to that is a release agreement which the designer must sign before the consultant/agent/publisher will look at the game.  This release agreement essentially says that even if the game is published later that is very close to the one that was submitted there is no legal liability.

That’s because even though (in United States law) game ideas cannot be copyrighted, there are many novice designers who will spend money anyway to start a lawsuit, even though they don’t have a hope in hell of succeeding.  And there are lawyers willing to take someone’s money to do something even though they know they don’t have a hope in hell of succeeding.  (All you need to do is look at the ridiculous “games” and game ideas that are patented (all available online) to recognize how many lawyers are willing to take advantage of “game designers”.)  Defending against that lawsuit costs money.


But is evaluation practical otherwise?

It’s relatively easy to tell that a game isn’t very good.  There are so many obvious ways to screw up that there are plenty of ways to identify huge flaws.  But once something is judged better than the obviously poor, it becomes far more difficult to recognize what’s exceptionally good.  You might think that publishers can do that, but if they could, they’d be making a lot more money than most of them make!  No, no one can tell, really.  (Heck, there’s enough disagreement even about games that have been in publication for quite a while.)

And if that’s true, a consultant or evaluator is of more limited use than you might have thought at first.

(I especially remember a teacher of game design - online - who said that student games would be graded on how much fun they were.  Ridiculous!  The teacher didn’t have the time or players to play all the games even once, quite apart from the great variation in what people think “fun” is (I won’t even use the word “fun” about a game, preferring “enjoyable”).  And the teacher was not a lifelong game player, had only recently started playing games: she was a programmer.)

My general advice about game evaluators is the same advice most people give about job head-hunters.  If a headhunter wants money up front, he’s probably not really legit, it’s more likely a scam.  Good headhunters are paid by the hiring company when they find someone who fulfills the company’s needs.  Similarly, a good agent (or evaluator, or marketer) will get his money as part of the successful licensing when your game is published.

Many “evaluators” offer to evaluate your game for a fee, and perhaps list it on some website that publishers will never look at.  Once again, I don’t recommend any evaluator who wants money before you are paid by a publisher.


As for consultants, my response was:

    I am not sure how much I talked about consultants in the book.  My usual statement is something like "you won't make enough with a tabletop game (barring fantastic luck) to make consultants, agents, or even lawyers worthwhile (unless you're completely 'at sea' about contracts and law)."
    I also say that even publishers have trouble recognizing good games (just as book publishers have trouble recognizing good books, sometimes).  So I cannot pretend to be able to tell you how good your game is.  Moreover, it's difficult to evaluate some games without playing experience, which requires both time and players.
    Furthermore, just as many publishers won't listen to any idea about a game without legal protection, I'd have to require you to sign an agreement that released me from any liability should I later publish/have published a game with any similarity to yours.   Not that I would, I have many dozens of games in various stages and rarely start a new one, but the legal protection has been shown to be necessary.
    That's also why I have the following statement on my Website:  "Disclaimer: occasionally people send me unsolicited ideas or concepts for games.  Be aware that when you do this you acknowledge that I may use your ideas in any way I wish without legal obligation.  (I'm unlikely to do this, but I may have the same idea already, and I have no desire to be sued by someone who doesn't realize that ideas are not protected by copyright law in any case.)"
    So I generally don't act as a consultant for a variety of reasons.
    Moreover, Duke is about two hours away from my home, a consultant has to charge for travel a well as "face time".
    So I'm trying to talk you out of the idea in a variety of ways.  It's more important to get a large variety of people to play the game, watch them, listen to them, than to talk to any "expert" about it.

Evidently I convinced him, as I did not hear from him again.

What about asking your friendly neighborhood game designer for advice about your game?  If a game is “out in the open”, e.g. at a game club, then you would hope that any observer who happened to see it would be unlikely to be sued.  If the meeting is a game designers’ meeting intended to enable designers to get advice from other designers, one would hope that any suspicion of “stealing” ideas would be gone.  Unfortunately, given the extremely litigious climate in the USA, and a court system where anyone willing to spend money can get a day in court even when their situation is hopeless, caution is necessary.


So why use an agent?  To approach Hasbro or some German publishers you must go through an agent. The publishers use agents to winnow out all the obviously bad games that the publisher would otherwise have to deal with.   (There are thousands of wannabe designers who think that if they slightly modify Monopoly or Blackjack or some other well-known game they’ve got a great idea.  A glance at patented games will show you lots of worthless ideas people come up with that they think are so valuable they spend $3,000-$10,000 patenting the idea.)  Last I knew there were about 300 designers who could approach Mike Gray of Hasbro directly, rather than through an agent - but you probably aren’t one of them.  So an agent can be necessary in some circumstances, though not most.

Literary agents are much more common than game agents - most fiction writers have an agent.  They function the same way in the book business as for games, saving the publisher from many books that otherwise hit the “slush pile”, manuscripts by unknown writers submitted to the publisher.  (Publishers hire someone from outside the company to read the slush pile; in many cases, the reader can tell a book isn’t suitable after reading a page or two.)  I may be out of date, but last I knew a literary agent tended to take 10% of what the author made.  Game agents are likely to take much, much more.

When I lived in England, knowing little about the publishing situation there (this was long before the World Wide Web, in the late 70s), I did use an agent to place my first game with H. P. Gibsons, which was a major game publisher at the time.  (They later were the original publisher of Britannia after Avalon Hill rejected it with “games of this era don’t sell”, but this was for Swords & Wizardry, a somewhat Stratego-like game.)  That cost me 50% of the proceeds, but in the circumstances it was worth it.  As it would be to get a game published by Hasbro. 

So for most beginning designers, evaluators, consultants, and agents are to be avoided.

Brief, free audio-visual Introduction to Game Design course:  (I have had to change to an official charge of $9, but the coupon code BriefFreeIntro makes the course free again.)

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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Ruminations about Magical Numbers (and processes) in Card Games

Not long ago I wrote some ruminations about magical numbers and boardgames, ( and Steven Davis suggested I should talk about this in relation to card games, such as card hand size.  I’m not a person who plays standard card games, though I have played Old Maid, Canasta, Euchre, and even Poker in the distant past, and still may play Oh Hell once a year.  But I’ve never played Uno, let alone Hearts or Spades or Gin Rummy.  But lately I find myself designing games that use cards, though not the standard deck.

One of the benefits of cards is that there is a natural limit to play that does not exist in boardgames, that is, the exhaustion of the draw deck.  And card games naturally fall into relatively short sessions (one hand), though most traditional card games are played through several hands.

Hand size varies a lot in card games using the standard deck of cards.  One of the smallest hands is an Texas Hold ‘em (two cards) though more typical in poker is five cards.   Magic: the Gathering starts with seven.  I have made a brief list of hand size in some card games, and I’d judge that a hand size of five to seven cards is most common.  (I’m not counting games like Bridge and Old Maid where all the cards are dealt out.)

I like to design screwage games, which are pretty popular at the university game club I attend, and there I’ll start with somewhere between five and seven cards.  If I don’t have a strong feeling about where to start I’ll pick a larger number because that gives players more choices within the context of the usual card game limitation that there are typically fewer choices than in a boardgame.

When I design a boardgame that uses event cards I typically start players with five and see how it works out.  In one case, for a space wargame with three to five players, I reduced the number to four, three when there are five or more players, because the event cards had too strong an influence over the game.   Event cards are there for variety and uncertainty, not to dominate the game.  (I will write a separate piece about uses of event cards.)

The number of starting cards also depends on how many cards are available in the deck and on how many people typically play.  It doesn’t take much time to work out approximately how many rounds a game will take if players are drawing one card at a time and there are a given number of cards.  Multiply the hand size times the number of players, subtract that from the number of cards available, divide the result by the number of players to get the number of rounds.

Obviously, the more cards players start with, the more options they have.  The question may be at what point are there too many options for your target audience.  One way to broaden the appeal of a game is to reduce the number of decisions players have to make.  (Another way is to reduce the number of exceptions to the rules that people must keep in mind.)  So a hand of seven cards gives more options and decisions than a hand of five cards, but the question is, is it the right number of options and decisions for your game?

As a practical aspect as well, as the hand gets bigger people have more trouble coping with handling it, with keeping track of everything, even with being able to hold it in their hand so they can see all the cards.

In many games I don’t have a set hand size, or even a size limit.  A few players like to collect lots of cards to get a big hand; but they rarely win when they do this, because they’re expending actions to draw while other players are doing something potentially more productive.

I find that people so often forget to draw cards, especially in games where you occasionally use a free-to-play card that you don’t replace, that in some games I have a simple rule that if you find yourself with fewer than five cards at any time you draw back up to five immediately.

What about deck size? I tend to stick to the old standard governed by printing capabilities of 55 cards per deck (or 110, or 165 . . .).  A standard deck is 52, plus two jokers, plus a logo card.  (I understand there is more variation now in printing machinery.)  55 is a lot of cards for many purposes, such as Event Cards.  But a game that is purely cards often demands 110 cards or more, to provide sufficient variety and versatility.

I may as well make this observation about the card game process as well.  The paradigm for standard card games is that a players plays a card, and draws a card, each turn.  But which comes first? If the player draws the card afterward then he has time to think about how to use it and what to do next before his next turn.  If the player draws to start the turn then everyone waits while the player thinks about what to do with this new card.  On the other hand, if the player feels he has a poor set of cards then he’ll be happy to draw before he plays in hopes that he’ll draw something more satisfying.  Also it may be easier for players to remember to draw before playing than to remember to draw after playing, especially if playing one card can result in some additional actions.  But it’s so important for games to be shorter nowadays that I usually choose draw-after because that speeds up the game.

Of course, you can have games that use cards yet don’t follow the standard pattern of play one and draw one.  For example as I recall, in Fluxx the number you draw varies according to cards that people have played during the game.  In other games, drawing a card is one action among many possible actions, with a player taking two or three actions per turn, so he or she may draw two or three cards, or even none.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

“Play as many games as you can?” Maybe not.

“If you want to quit playing RPGs, start designing them.”
(quote from a GenCon 2012 panelist)

I sometimes see or hear game designers give the advice that is quoted in the title of this piece.  I have to disagree.  Game designers need to spend their time efficiently, just like anyone else.  And playing games (other than their own for testing) is not very efficient, certainly not the most important thing game designers should be doing.  Because playing games is *very* different from designing them.

The idea behind the advice is that game designers need to know lots of games.  That’s a reasonable point of view.  But playing a game is not necessarily the best way to learn about games:

•    1) Playing games is not, *for some people*, the most efficient way to learn about them. 
•    2) When you reach a certain experience level, you’re not going to learn a lot playing games, *compared to the time it takes*.
•    3) For most people it’s too easy to play games and not do what you should really be doing, which is designing, testing, and completing games.

Let’s eliminate right now a supposed reason not to play games.  Eric Hanuise (Flatlined Games) says "Every now and then I meet a game designer wannabee that proudly states he will not play other games or look at what's published, in order not to be influenced in his design."   That's *nuts*.  You need to know what is happening with other games more than you need to worry about being influenced by other games.  I would never worry about being influenced by other designs because borrowing is endemic in game design, yet insofar as I make games as models rather than collections of mechanics I’m unlikely to borrow as much as mechanics-constructors might be.  But that might not be true for someone with a lot less experience.

Now let’s go through the three reasons I’ve stated above, in greater detail.

There are many ways to learn about new games, and playing games is not always the most efficient way.  In fact it’s often quite inefficient.  If you rely only on playing the game you need to play several times to really understand what’s going on.  (This is why writers of formal detailed game reviews should have played the game several times.)  Some people (myself included) can learn more efficiently by reading about games, reading game rules, watching people play games, and *talking with people who have played the game several times*.  That is, not everyone has to actually play a game to understand it. 

On the other hand, I’ve seen many people play a game once and thoroughly misunderstand it.

The oft-expressed presumption that the only way, and presumably the most effective way, to learn about a game is to play it, is simply ignorant or self-centered (take your pick).  It depends on the person, on the situation, perhaps even on the game.  There also tends to be a presumption in some people that if you don't play a lot of games, you're not learning anything about games, which is clearly NOT true.

I almost never play a published game (including mine), period.   Also, by watching and talking with players I can learn about a game that I would obviously dislike strongly (and I am *very* picky).   I cannot recall ever having the experience of playing a board game that I was pretty sure I would dislike, only to find out I liked it.  Maybe that’s something that comes with age.  A senior citizen (me) has a lot more experience playing games than a 25-year-old, and so may be able to understand a game better without playing it. 

The more time I spend playing someone else's games, the less time I have to devote to my own (which must be played solo several times, if nothing else).  I don't even play my own published games *as they were published*.  On the other hand I've played Britannia in several versions more than twenty times solo this year, but that is in aid of making and testing rules for the new editions.

I don't mean to compare myself with him, obviously, but when some presumptuous dude decides that my views must be useless because I don't actually play a lot of different games, I point out that Reiner Knizia doesn't play other people's games.  (If you're interested in tabletop games and don't know who Reiner (as he likes to be called) is, you need to read more and get out more.)  I hasten to add that there are few other resemblances between me and Reiner. 

Perhaps a comparison to another field will help.  Many people like history but learn in different ways.  I was educated as a professional historian, and if I want to learn history I’ll read a book (or, these days, something shorter depending on the level of detail I need).  Some people learn history by watching the History Channel, which I very rarely watch.  That’s partly just how habits have been established and partly because the History Channel can go overboard in dramatizing history to the point that you don’t know what’s true and what’s not.  It’s “Hollywood history.”  Some people like to learn history by playing historical games.  Now I like to teach history through games, but I certainly don’t learn history that way, for me it’s not efficient.  I can learn a lot more in less time by reading a book. 

But I don’t tell everyone that if they don’t read history books they can’t know anything about history, no more than I would tell someone if they don’t play lots of games they can’t know anything about games.  There are different ways to learn, of different efficiency for different people.

Let me repeat, I'm *not* saying you don't need to *know* a lot of games, I'm saying you don't necessarily need to *play* a lot of games.  Because *one of the biggest barriers to productivity in the game industry is game playing.*  If you want to be *productive* as a designer you can't play too many games, because you won't have time to do the design.  (Caveat: if you're playing your own game prototypes then that's another thing entirely, because that ought to be productive.) Playing games is not very productive, or perhaps I should say, the Law of Diminishing Marginal Returns kicks in when you play other's games, and you need to work on your own games rather than play more of others.  I have a friend who has designed quite a few published games, but he would have published a lot more if he didn't enjoy playing games so much. 

To make a comparison with a related industry, I think you'd find that many full-time novelists don't have much time to read novels, because they're writing novels.

Also, when you get to a certain stage in understanding game design (or, for those novelists, fiction writing), when you play a game or read a novel you see how it's constructed, and it takes away some of the sense of wonder and the enjoyment that brings.  Kind of like when Keira Knightly at age 12 or so played Queen Amidala's handmaid in The Phantom Menace: being part of the production took away her sense of wonder of Star Wars.

Just as a professional game designer shouldn't be designing games for himself – unless he *knows* he is typical of his target audience – he shouldn't be designing games that are just like some other game.  The two sometimes go together, the designer likes a particular game so much that he tends to design games just like it.  On the other hand, I have had several favorite games over the course of the past 40 years, the biggest one Dungeons & Dragons (first edition).  I have never designed a role-playing game that would take the place of Dungeons & Dragons, instead I design additions and modifications to D&D.  In other words, I haven't tried to design an RPG for me, I've modified my favorite game instead.

Yes, an awful lot of games submitted to game companies are very, very much like existing games, and those aren't likely to get very far, although there are exceptions (usually self-published).  But in those cases the designer has consciously modeled his game on another one.  It is also possible to design a game that turns out to be much like a game designed independently by someone else - this has even happened to Knizia - though it's not likely.

I'm not discouraging you from playing games, as long as you enjoy it, *unless* it is a detriment to, an excuse not to work on, designing your own games. (If you’re only designing one game, you’re far out of step with most professional designers, who work on many games each year.)  If you like to play lots of published games, go ahead.  But recognize that you're not using your time efficiently, and may be unconsciously avoiding what you ought to be doing, if you want to be a game designer.  What you need to be doing is *designing and completing games*, not playing published games.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

“On the horns of a dilemma”

(In the following I’ll be using quotes gleaned from online discussions, from players and a well-known designer.  These are all personal observations, of course, and anecdotal evidence.  We simply don’t have the “scientific” evidence about games to “prove” any particular point of view.  You’ll have to examine your own experience to make an evaluation.)

A while ago I read a preview of the video game XCOM:Enemy Unknown, now released and not to be confused with its successor Declassified.  I was struck by how often the author talked about “hard choices”, struck because this is what games (beyond family/party games) traditionally have involved, yet are rarely present in a great many contemporary video games, and many tabletop games.  Traditionally, a game designer wanted to put the players of a game “on the horns of a dilemma”, trying to decide between two or more things the player wants to do when he can only do one. 

Even in family games there were occasional difficult choices to be made although the players often weren’t bothered whether they made the correct choice or not.  This may be one way of differentiating family/party games from more serious games.  That is, adult players of family/party games rarely take the game, or themselves as players, seriously.   Children often take them more seriously than the adults. 

Diablo III is a poster boy for video games where there are no hard choices, where in the long run your choices don’t matter at all.  It’s institutionalized in the game in such things as the selection and use of skills.  You do not have to make decisions that matter when choosing which skills to use, because you can always change combinations.  This is touted as providing greater variety, which it does, but once again it means that what the player decides *doesn’t really matter*.  There are no consequences for poor choices, just a “do again” akin to guess-and-check (which used to be known as “trial and error”, but the meaning of the latter is changing).  It is no long consequence-based gaming, it has become reward-based gaming.

In general, in Diablo III it doesn’t really matter what a player does, he’ll succeed in the end.

    "I know if I invest X amount of time into D3 I will beat it with no learning curve and nothing really gained from the experience other than over hyped cinematics and the bragging rights to sell things to my peers on an auction house.

    I know this for a fact. There is no skill set or learning curve required for D3 except point, click and equip the best weapon set for my class that I own. I can die millions of times and as long as I am willing to keep clicking, I will triumph eventually. D2 had challenges/elements throughout its design that made it more unwieldy but immensely more fun. All of those points were removed from the latest version of the game to accommodate a wider audience."   (John Karnay)

World of Warcraft is much the same.  Game designer Brenda Romero:

    "I play World of Warcraft a fair bit, but I don't really worry too much, because I know if I kill myself the very worst thing that's going to happen is I'll have to run a zillion miles back to my body.

    I am way more careful in Minecraft . . . when there's a fear of loss, your success means more to you."

This is not confined to video games.  Another aspect of these changes was reflected in the comments on a blog post that "weeped for newbs", lamenting that even secret doors seem to be regarded as a "dirty GM trick" in 4th edition D&D.

4th edition is WoWified, it doesn't ask the players to think much, it's really hard to screw up and die.  A comment on the post finally made me realize that the fundamental point of RPGs has changed between 1st and 4th edition.  In 1st edition you wanted to overcome the thrill of fear.  The referee's job was to scare the snot out of you, usually by threatening your character with death, sometimes by threatening to take or destroy your stuff, though his or her job definitely was NOT to actually kill you.  2nd edition was similar.  3rd edition became a contest to find rules that enabled you to construct a one-man army (OMA), and then the game was about you showing off the super-duper-ness of your one-man army (one person called it "fantasy Squad Leader").  Your OMA was too tough to be scared.  Where in 1st edition most of those unearned advantages would not even be allowed, they had become the main reason for playing 3rd.  In 4th edition it has gone further, essentially you're rewarded for participation.

In this respect many video and role-playing games are becoming pure entertainment, without any element of frustration or obstacle.

In traditional games the consequence of making the wrong choices, or sometimes simply being unlucky, was that you lost the game (or at least were more likely to lose).  In video game “entertainments” you can’t lose; if you fail or die you simply come back and continue as before, whether this is built into the game as is often the case now (respawning) or whether you go back to your saved games.  Nor can you lose in tabletop RPGs, if the referee chooses so.

I said in my book Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish that I thought video and tabletop games are converging, but sometimes I'm not so sure when I look at games like Farmville on one hand, and worse, the all-rewards-all-the-time games like Diablo III and many others, where anything that interferes with getting direct pleasure is regarded as a "fail".

Yet many Eurostyle board games lean toward removing the sting or frustration of failure by removing direct conflict or direct interaction from the game.  In the extreme I call this a “contest”, where several people are attempting to achieve the same thing without significantly affecting one another and whoever achieves its first wins.  Virtually any activity can be turned into a contest if it involves time or something else that’s measurable, such as who can get an arrow closest to the bull’s-eye, or who can type the most words in 5 minutes.  Many Olympics style sports are actually contests rather than games.  Some races are contests, for example most swimming races; others involve blocking an opponent which is an aspect of a game rather than a contest. 

The heart of this point of view is that games (as opposed to puzzles) require a semblance of intelligent opposition that can affect other players, and in contests there is no by-rule way to affect other players.  Yes, you can ALWAYS have a chance to affect another person psychologically, for example going out fast in a middle distance swimming race to try to spook your opponent; but the rules don't cover or facilitate this.

A game of hard decisions requires the player to use his brain, but that seems to be going out of fashion.  For example, Clay Johnson talked about how his son plays video games:

    "What I often observe though is that he 'cheats' to play through his games. By that I mean that he starts the game, and after a few rounds gets stuck. Instead of using his brain to try different strategies he simply looks up a guide on the net where there are countless free walkthrough guides for nearly every game out there.
    To me, this seems like it turns a puzzle into a basic clerical task, but he thrives on it !? Can this response by the users be the basic reason for 'dumbing down' games?"

This reminds me of contemporary programming students - usually those who aren't interested in becoming professional programmers - who guess at solutions rather than reason them out.  But instead of guessing or figuring it out, Johnson's son looks it up.

I like to say that at age 15 I "retired" from playing chess, because it had become too much like work.  Chess is a "game" (extraordinarily difficult puzzle, really) where there's always a correct, best move, and that combined with the vast weight of the chess literature, put me off.  Now "too much like work" has changed meaning.  For a great many players, a game that requires *any* hard decisions is "too much like work."

With a lack of hard decisions, gameplay depth (which is largely about hard decisions) is also absent or in short supply in most contemporary games.  In fact, when gamers say "depth" nowadays they often mean *variety*.  Variety is replacing gameplay depth as a goal for game design.

It's important to most western gamers that games are "fair".  But I think the definition of fair has changed for video gamers.  Where it used to imply that you got what you deserved, that you had to *earn* something, now it means "fair" in the way my young niece used to use it.  She'd say "that's not fair", but she meant, "that's not what I want, I'm not getting what I want".  Now video game players expect a game to give them what they want, when they want it, period.

I'm not saying this is bad, I'm saying this is what it is, and game designers have to recognize it, even if they design for a niche that prefers old-fashioned, consequence-based gaming - the niche that likes XCOM: Enemy Unknown.