Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Two New Designs

When I started this blog a dozen or so years ago it was mostly a personal blog where I discussed what I was doing (in connection with game design). Gradually it became more formal, more like magazine articles at a time when magazines were disappearing (especially the paying ones). Some of the material in my book Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish, which I finish writing in 2011, first appeared in the blog. After the book I started making videos for online audiovisual classes, as well as my Game Design channel on YouTube, and I wrote less.

I’m starting to write more now - haven't recorded a video in five weeks - but some of it is informal, the kind of stuff I used in the early period of the blog. I think that’s going to continue.

What have I been doing (in game design) post WBC and GenCon? I had to get some stuff together to send to publishers that I talked to at the conventions, but mainly I’ve been trying to put together prototypes and play the four games that I devised in the 2 ½ week period I was away from home. Not only can conventions be stimulating to the imagination, the long drives (nearly 2,200 miles altogether) offer the opportunity to use my PDA to record voice notes about games. In effect, I tried to design games while I’m driving. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s considerably more likely to work when I have just been at a game convention.

Of course, some of the ideas never get beyond those voice notes, or transcription of the voice notes into Info Select (my old and expensive free-text database). But this time, three are taking shape and two have been played, one solo by me, another by players without benefit of me playing solo beforehand. That’s a first, but the (admittedly simple) game turned out to work very well.

The first game I thought of, and the one that most excites me, and also the one I’ve played solo four times, is “free-form Britannia in outer space!” I have used the free-form techniques I’ve devised and tested for the introductory version of Epic Britannia and for Conquer Britannia (the broad market version of Britannia.

Why am I doing this? It’s all Scott Pfeiffer’s fault. At WBC Scott - who was known as one of the outstanding players of the Avalon Hill version of Britannia - played in all three heats of the tournament. He cheerfully told me how the old version of Britannia is the best game ever while the newer version (second edition, Fantasy Flight) was a good game but not nearly as good as the old one. I disagree with him, but as we discussed the games it became clear that what he objected to was the additional constraints added to the second edition.

In contemporary games just as in contemporary life people object to constraints more strenuously than in the past, I think, because there are so many more things that we can do these days than, say 50 years ago. It’s an odd dichotomy, because games are by definition an artificial set of constraints that players agree to be bound by when they play the game. In particular, for example, Scott liked being able to keep raider armies out to sea indefinitely. This was actually a mistake made by the original British publisher/developer, a misunderstanding of how it was supposed to work, because I didn’t want Jute armies floating out in the English Channel long after the Jute homeland was no longer inhabited by Jutes! Nor the Angles waiting until the year 1000 to come into Britain. (You may have heard the story, I had dropped out of the gaming hobby for 20 years and first saw someone play the published version of Britannia in 2004 (original publication 1986). I saw those same Jutes floating out there long after they should’ve been forced into Britain, and exclaimed “No Way!”)

The game comes first in Britannia, but it’s also intended to be history, and this perpetual floating was not historical in any way shape or form. But in a space wargame you’re not constrained by history, so I can use what I call the free-form techniques that tend to ignore history, to make an interesting game. Players still have four nations - well, species - but the other players don’t know three of the four until they actually turn up! The point scoring depends on a “scoring center” that the player can move around as the game proceeds. Many of the historically based constraints have been removed. I can also keep the number of pieces down somewhat via a smaller board, so that at present no species can have more than 10 fleets. And to compensate for the smaller number of fleets I have each fleet roll two dice, and it takes two hits to destroy an enemy fleet.

Who knows how players will react to it, I think it is closer to the spirit of Risk insofar as there are fewer constraints, and that’s what people like in a certain kind of wargame as epitomized by Risk. We’ll see.

I love space wargames that I love designing space wargames, but I’m not sure there’s much of a commercial market for them. In the end I design games because I enjoy designing games, so I continue to pursue this one.

The second game that’s been played is a pure specialty card game, that is there are 110 cards and no other components. It’s meant to depict wizards sending out their minions to explore various areas and try to collect loot. The wizards cast spells to help out (or hinder their rivals) but they don’t get personally involved in the actual fighting.

I managed to get a prototype of this game done on the day of the first meeting of the semester of the NC State tabletop game club. It’s quite a simple game, so I decided to ask the players, some of whom have played my games for three or four years, if they were willing to play a game that I had not played before. They agreed, and it turned out to be one of the quickest playing games I have ever seen, not quick as in a short time to complete the game (though it can be), but a short time to complete your turn, so that in a 4  player game it seems like it’s your turn almost as soon as you finish your previous turn. I had not planned the game to be so quick playing, it just happened. A bonus of playing a “not played before” game is that the players offered lots of suggestions for new cards. I’ve added 16 new ones (and deleted 16 old ones) to see how it goes.

My next task is to get the third game together to play. It’s a 4X space wargame cut down to bare essentials.


My game Doomstar, in video form, is now listed on Steam and will be available in mid-September. http://store.steampowered.com/app/504750/   https://largevisiblemachine.itch.io/doomstar

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Experience versus Training in RPGs

Several years ago I was reading a column in PC gamer written by Desslock, who has been writing about computer RPGs for many years.  He likes skill-based development systems because players improve in the capabilities that they use rather than allocate experience points to whatever improvements they choose, perhaps being required to “train” in those new abilities.  To him it makes much more sense that you improve in the things you actually do than those you train for.

Bear with me a while here as I veer into teaching and then back to RPGs. I agree, though as a teacher I recognize that a good teacher can convey their experience to enable someone to avoid the lessons of the “school of hard knocks”.  I also recognize that it’s possible for someone to do something over and over but to do it poorly in a way that does not lead to improvement.  But as I read I realized that, in the United States at least, a great many people believe that training is the best way or the only way to know how to do something.  I remember one 18-year-old student telling me a few years ago that he and his classmates had been taught in high school that the only way to learn how to do something is to take class for it!  This was a student in a game design class; OTOH I certainly never had the opportunity to take any game design classes but I do pretty well at it and know quite a bit about it.

Yet I see this attitude that classes are the only way to learn, institutionalized in our schools and colleges.  The accreditation agencies that a accredit typical public and private colleges and universities in this country emphasize degrees as the major criterion of qualification for teachers.  It does not matter if you have been teaching the subject for 30 years: that is explicitly disregarded.  I was told about someone who had taught a subject for 32 years in a local high school and received a letter from the state telling him he was not qualified to teach it because he did not have a degree in that area.  (Yet at the same time, in the same state, a large proportion of K12 teachers have no qualifications including no teaching certificate.  These are lateral entry people who are allowed to teach up to three years before they need to get the teaching certificate.)

It does not matter, unless the school is willing to go through a lengthy portfolio process, that you (for example) worked in networking at a major medical center more than nine years before teaching networking classes.  If you don’t have a networking degree you are not qualified to teach networking, even though networking degrees did not exist until about 15 years ago and consequently anybody who went to school before that could not possibly have a networking degree.  (These are actual experiences, not theoretical.)  One college president told me that a person with a PhD in zoology was deemed by the accreditation people to be not qualified to teach freshman biology - zoology and botany are the two major divisions of biology - and as a result the school terminated the teacher!  If this had been anticipated, or the school had been willing to disagree and create a portfolio for the instructor, he almost certainly would have been deemed qualified.  But schools are very rarely willing to go to this trouble.

So we get a situation where, for example, the founder of creative writing as a curriculum in universities later said it should be done away with.  The major reason for this is that the people who have actually published novels and other kinds of creative writing that people pay money for, do not usually have Masters or PhD degrees in creative writing and so are “not qualified” to teach creative writing.  The people who are officially qualified to teach creative writing have gone through creative writing programs but may not have had anything published commercially.

What we tend to get in colleges and universities for teachers is people who have gone through undergraduate school and then graduate school and have a Masters or PhD in their subject, but have never actually practiced it in the real world.  For some subjects there is no way to practice it in the real world but others are very much practice based.

Given how this point of view has permeated schools, colleges, and universities, should we be surprised if role-playing games take the same sort of path?  I always thought one of the dumbest rules in early versions of D&D was the requirement that when you reached enough experience points to rising level you had to pay somebody an exorbitant sum to “train” you to be able act at the new level.  It was dumb from a gameplay point of view, because if applied as written it turned adventurers into money grubbers in order to  acquire enough money for training.  It was also dumb because if you have done the things that enabled you to survive and prosper then why would you need somebody to train you?  (And we can ask the chicken and egg question, where did the original trainer come from?  There must be a way to learn these things successfully without being trained.)

Computers are ideal for skill-based development because the computer can keep track of what you did and raise your capability as you go along.  This is much more difficult to track in tabletop RPG’s.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

What’s it Like to be a Game Designer?

(This was originally a response to a question on Quora.) 

Because there are so many kinds of game designers, the answer to the question is the same as the answer to many questions about game design: it depends.

The difference in experience between being a game designer who is working full time for a video game studio, someone who is an indie video game designer, and someone who is a freelance tabletop game designer such as myself, is immense. (There are a few full-time tabletop designers working for publishers, as well.)

For example, almost all of the time I can design whatever kind of game I want to design, and either I find someone to publish it, or I self publish it (which I personally do not do, but most tabletop designers do these days), or it doesn’t get published. Someone who is working as a game designer full-time may be lucky enough to work on a game they want to do, but much more likely will be working on a game that someone else decided is the one the studio needs to do. Indie video game designers tend to fall more into the freelance category in this respect, they’re on their own.

Video game designers tend to work on one game at a time, the one they’re trying to prepare to be published, while experienced tabletop designers tend to work on a lot of games in a given segment of time. The difference comes from how long it takes to get a game to a decent prototype. There is no programming or art or sound required for a tabletop game, so you can get to a good prototype relatively quickly, compared with a videogame. And from the good prototype to the final takes far longer for a video game than for a tabletop - the publisher takes care of production for the tabletop. That is, if the designer has licensed to a publisher, rather than self publishes.

Tabletop designers often spend a great deal more time involved in playtesting, than video game designers do. Much of that is because video games are designed to be played right out of the box, whereas someone has to read the rules of the tabletop game. And of course you can make as many copies as you want of a digital game at no cost, to send to playtesters. So it’s relatively easy for a video game studio to send their game out for “blind” playtesting (testing where the players have no knowledge of the development of the game). Tabletop designers spend much more time overseeing face-to-face playtesting of their games than they do actually designing them.

Video games can also go into “Early Access” or some other kind of pre-release and even post-release testing that is not possible for tabletop games.

Employment conditions in video game studios vary immensely. What Chris Crawford said 15 years ago is still true today, there are so many people who want jobs in the video game industry that the employers have supply and demand on their side; in that situation, employees are often treated poorly.


My game Doomstar, in video form, is now listed on Steam and will be available in mid-September. http://store.steampowered.com/app/504750/https://largevisiblemachine.itch.io/doomstar

The Beta is available in some inexpensive bundles (which I thought were piracy, but are not!).

Friday, August 19, 2016

My game Doomstar on Steam (beta release)

My game Doomstar, in video form, is now listed on Steam and will be available in mid-September. http://store.steampowered.com/app/504750/   https://largevisiblemachine.itch.io/doomstar

The Beta is available in some inexpensive bundles (which I thought were piracy, but are not!).