Wednesday, January 20, 2021

A Lesson in Absolutes

This comes from the pandemic but can be applied to game design as well. In the pandemic the general advice from medical people is that you need to wear a suitable mask and stay at least 6 feet away from other people, and that will go a long way to keeping you safe from the coronavirus. This is where the absolutes come in. People seem to think of these as absolute limits, but they're not. Somebody somewhere decided that 6 feet was good enough. And maybe the risk there was 95% risk free or 99% or even much better. But somebody had to decide that this was good enough. Because you can be much farther away and still get the virus, or you can be closer and not get it. 

In the same way masks are quite variable. There are masks that are a certain standard that we hope medical people are able to wear, that is supposed to protect them very well, whereas some homemade masks are not going protect people well at all. As I understand it the coronavirus has very small airborne elements and if a mask isn't good enough the airborne elements can get right through the mask. But instead we get this absolute idea that it’s perfect. No, it’s not certain protection, it's just that a mask helps a lot.

Washing hands isn’t perfect either. It's a good thing, but it's not perfect, and of course it depends on how well you wash your hands. Washing hands for five seconds is not as good as if you wash your hand for 20 seconds, using soap in both cases. 

Now how do we apply this to games? Games of most types have absolute rules: either you can do it or you can’t do it, although sometimes miniatures seem a bit different. I remember Don Greenwood saying that miniatures rules seem to be negotiable. Role-playing games can be similar. In fact you can see the entire play of RPGs as a negotiation between players and  the GM. Of course, poorly written rules aren’t absolute, there’s wiggle room or room for misunderstanding. You want your rules to be absolute, but in practice if 99% of the time they’re understood correctly, you’re doing well. 

(I ignore the wannabe rules lawyers who proclaim that if the rules don’t say they cannot do something, then they can do it. Nonsense.)

I've also observed that gamers are much less likely to change game rules (whether via House Rules or formal variants) than they used to be. It used to be very common for people to make variants of games. I made bunches of Diplomacy variants as I learned game design. A lot of the RPG material that is published is variants of existing RPG rules. I believe people today are much more likely than in the past to accept the rules of a game they buy as absolute rather than something that can be changed. In older days a lot of people would change the rules to make a game work better, or at least work more like they liked it. Nowadays they give up on a game and move on to the next game. (This is partly a function of having so many more games to work with than we did 40, 50 years ago.)

I think it's also a broader attitude. For example, there is a notion/habit with toys that you don't make up stories for your toys, you use the stories that have already been created by the publisher or the fiction the toys are based on. Whether it’s G.I. Joe or Barbie or Star Wars or something else, many people expect the corporation that released the toy to provide all the stories. In a sense they believe the corporation is still the owner of the toys. Or look at the attitude toward board game expansions. People won’t change the rules until an expansion comes out, then they expect everyone to play with the expansion. Because the corporation (publisher) says so. 

It's a very different attitude to what older people are used to.

Originally, the above is all I had to say, but I’m going to add how this belief in absolutes affects in-person game conventions, as I keep hearing about one intended to take place before the end of February. There seems to be a notion in some quarters that as long as you spread people out and they wear masks they can safely attend an in-person game convention, that is to say spend several days indoors with a lot of people, staying in a hotel, and eating in restaurants (the latter being two of the five best places to catch Covid -19 because there are a lot of people confined in an enclosed space). This notion seems to stem from the absolutes I’ve been talking about, as well as from a mysterious refusal to recognize that more than one in a thousand Americans is dead from this disease.

Getting infected with an airborne disease is not an absolute yes/no proposition, insofar as the more exposure you get, the more risk you take, the more likely you are to get infected. Six feet is not absolute protection, it just reduces risk to a level that someone thought was “sufficient.” The more time you spend even at that 6 foot range, the more likely you are to get infected. Add being enclosed, add being in the convention where a lot of people are moving around, add the poor ventilation of many convention rooms, add playing games where at some point people have to be adjacent to the table in order to make their moves, and you’re just asking to get sick. Even if you are vaccinated, remember that vaccinations are not 100% protection, especially if you only have the first shot. The more risks you take, the more likely that inoculation won’t be sufficient.

We can even make an analogy to Dungeons & Dragons. My view of D&D is that you’re trying to minimize the number of times you have to get lucky with the dice in order to survive. (In a sense life is the same way - see "RPGs as Microcosms of Life," .) When you attend an in-person convention, at least in the first half of 2021 and probably later, you’re rolling the dice a lot more times than is desirable. As Dirty Harry said, “Do you feel lucky, punk?” But at least Dirty Harry knew how many shots he’d fired: you’re not going to know how many people have brought the disease to the convention, how many are foolish enough to refuse vaccination, how many are going to be idiotic enough not to wear masks, how many are wearing poor quality masks or wearing them incorrectly, how many just don't give a shit. Maybe there will even be one who still thinks Covid-19 is a hoax! Good luck.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Game Conventions 2021

I see more pandemic cloud-cuckoo-land thinking respect to in-person game conventions in 2021.

Having a large group of people confined to an indoor space, even a ballroom, is a death trap. Your chances of being infected by Covid-19 are higher in such places, same as in a restaurant. Hotels are also one of the five places where you’re most likely to contract Covid-19, and most people going to conventions stay in hotels. So we have to ask ourselves, what needs to change to make a convention a relatively safe event?

Keep in mind that the vaccinations are not 100% effective, it’s a rare vaccine that is, and especially in the face of a mutating disease such as Covid-19. There’s always the possibility that it will mutate into something that the current vaccinations (or some of them) will not prevent or even ameliorate.

Second, ask yourself, in the ridiculous anti-science climate of the United States, how many people will refuse to be vaccinated even when vaccinations are available to all? The answer seems to be, a distressingly large proportion have forgotten the benefits of such great inventions as smallpox vaccine and polio vaccine and tuberculosis vaccine. They’re in their own little cloud-cuckoo-land. 

Third, consider how slowly the vaccines are being distributed, let alone manufacturing limitations, and ask yourself how soon we have the opportunity to have everyone be vaccinated. (Don’t forget that it takes three to four weeks to get the second shot.)

Fourth, consider how unlikely it is that people in vulnerable groups (such as myself, soon 70 years old and with diabetes and a strong tendency toward blood clots) are going to go to a convention unless they are sure everyone has been vaccinated. Yet I have not seen or heard a single word about proofs that someone has been vaccinated. I am not going to a convention unless I am sure everyone there has been vaccinated, I’m not taking a person’s word for it in the present chaotic climate. And if I have that attitude, probably a lot of other people will too.

Given all those things, conventions a month or two from now are impossible, no matter what the local polity may say about allowing people to get together in enclosed spaces for days. Late summer would appear to be the earliest when we can attain a desirable situation. Hence I have some hope that the WBC - World Boardgaming Championships (late July/early August) might be held this year. Or perhaps the regional Grogcon here in Florida in October. Though I think proof of vaccination will be a big stumbling block simply because people aren’t thinking about it, in the same way that people didn’t think about how vaccinations would be distributed, with the resulting current mess.

It is amazing to me how so many people don't take this danger seriously even as 4,000+ die in the USA on some days, and the number is always over 3,000. 

Without everyone certainly inoculated, a convention is a death trap.

Saturday, January 09, 2021

My Responses to questions related to a book about the game Risk

 In December 2012, Dave Shapiro contacted me to contribute to a book about Risk he was co-authoring.This took the form of answers to a series of questions. The book appeared recently, sans this material. This is part 5 of 5.

You hold a Doctorate in Military History and have taught a course in game design for several years. The following questions are design related in general (not specifically Risk related). The questions are intended to encompass board, card and video games.

There have been thousands of games released over the years. Today, more games are released in a single year than ever before. What percentage of these would you consider to have some core design flaws?

Design flaws, like beauty, are in the eye of the beholder.  For example I think the leader-bashing in Vinci (and Smallworld) is a huge flaw but a lot of people evidently don’t think so.  

I will say that I think people are much less critical of game designs and much more critical of the physical aspects of a tabletop game or of the graphics and sound of a video game than in the past.  Often they don’t play the game enough times to reveal the design flaws.  The original Ticket to Ride had a distinct design flaw from a competitive point of view but most people never figured that out.  Or didn’t really care.

And the expectations have changed.  People play a video game once or a few times and they’re done.  That’s leaked over into tabletop games.  Like many video games, many tabletop games now have a solution, and once you have that solution you can implement it each time and so you tend to stop playing that game and move on to something else.  Also we’re in an age of the “cult of the new”, so people tend to play game a few times and then move on to the next new game - there are so many distractions including more games.  It’s now much easier for people to self published games and so we have vastly more games published in a year than was true in the 60s or 70s.

There’s more a “consumption” point of view about games.  So many people are interested much more in the destination, not the journey, in “beating the (video) game”, in bragging about how quickly they beat the game.  People are more interested in saying how many different games they played, than in how much they did (or didn’t) enjoy while playing.  This is an incentive to play lots of games shallowly than to play fewer games deeply.

Because of this perhaps, gamers are generally less skilled at playing games than they used to be.  They rely on intuition more than logic, they don’t study the game, they just “don’t bother”.  “On to the next game!”

Back in the day people would get a new game, read the rules, study the rules, study the game, and then play with someone else.  Now people try to learn the game while reading the rules for the first time, which gives me the heebie-jeebies.  They play once or twice or three times and then they’re on to the next game.  Back in the day the emphasis was on depth in games and now it’s on variety.

As I say, games are often consumed rather than enjoyed.  

So I’d say most published games have serious design flaws.  But it’s all in the eye of the beholder.

I’d also say that as time passes, more and more poor games are published, especially with the common notion that games are made to be played just one to three times. I try to design games that can be enjoyably played 25 or even a 100 times, and I know people who have played Britannia (a 4-5 hour game) more than 500 times. (I haven’t!)

What is the most common mistake novice designers make?

I’ve written about this at length in my first book and on my blogs.  There are a whole lot of big mistakes.  Perhaps the most common one is that novices think that all they need is a good (great) idea and they can get rich.  Ideas are worthless, they’re “a dime a dozen,” and it’s extremely likely that any idea you get is an idea at least 100 other people have got.  “There is nothing new under the sun.”  The idea is only the beginning.  

One of the common complaints about video games is that they lack 'meat'; that the games are graphically superior but significantly lacking in 'game play'. In the past decade, similar complaints have risen concerning board games; that in an attempt to shorten playing time, the game play has been reduced. As an experienced observer, instructor and designer, would you agree with the criticism?

See answer to above question about design flaws.  It’s really worse than that, as I’ll be discussing in a book I’m writing.  Games have changed fundamentally, especially video games, from consequence-based to reward-based.  You can’t lose a video game.  You can’t fail in a video game, unless you are just insufficiently persistent or insufficiently dexterous in those “games” that are really sports rather than games.  Games used to be about earning something, now they’re about being given something.  Free to play video games continue to push us in this direction, where “engagement”, which used to mean “intellectual interest,” has been replaced in meaning with “activity and reward” that does not need to be earned.

Another topic that regularly surfaces in game groups is a discussion on randomness. Some consider a game without any random factors to be a puzzle, not a game. The other extreme is that any randomness eliminates the ability to plan properly. How much randomness is acceptable in a game?

Whatever’s acceptable to the target audience.  I’m not a typical game player so I’m not generally a member of a target audience, I’m not the person to ask.  But the question of “acceptable” is meaningless because it depends entirely on the preferences of the target audience of the game.  An entirely random game like Candyland or Chutes and Ladders is acceptable to a four year old.  But not to the same person when he or she grows older.  (On the other hand, “Left Right Center” is entirely random, yet I see adults from my own extended family play it.)

Insofar as playing games now relies much more on intuition than on logic, randomness is more acceptable.  On the other hand, games tend not to have solutions when a lot of randomness is involved, and more people like puzzles than games.  A great many Eurostyle “games” are much more puzzle than game, where several people compete to solve the puzzle before anyone else does, or to have the most efficient solution when the game is arbitrarily ended, but they rarely affect one another during the game.  

Randomness is a big topic.  The draft section of my Nature of Game Design book about randomness, chaos, and uncertainty is 8,000 words.  The section comparing and defining games and puzzles is almost as large.  Greg Costikyan has written an entire book about it.

The game industry is now larger than the film industry. What do you see as the future of gaming? [Remember, ths is 2012]

Contemporary video games are more like cinema than like traditional games.  In fact I advocate the inclusion of an autopilot mode in video games - it’s something that’s occasionally been done in the past decade but is quite rare - so that a player can let the video game play through the difficult parts while the player watches, and a player can play whatever parts he or she likes.  Yet those players who still like challenges can be challenged by the game.  As it stands now video games continue to become less and less challenging in order to attract a larger market.  Autopilot would let us get around that although we partly do so with different difficulty levels.

Even though video games involve a lot of activity, in a sense they are becoming more passive because you’re always going to succeed, so in a way your activity is meaningless.

Brands are becoming increasingly important, which is why almost all the expensive video games are sequels rather than “new IP”.  I mentioned what Hasbro is doing with brands in a previous part.  Settlers of Catan, now just Catan, is a brand.  D&D is a brand.  Angry Birds is a huge brand, when you see Angry Birds stuffed toys in Walmart, Angry Birds movies, and “Angry Birds Star Wars”.

Tabletop games face a new challenge in free-to-play video games.  When video games were $50-$60 a pop for a game that quickly wore out its welcome, tabletop games were a much, much better entertainment value.  Now tabletop games can be compared to playing free-to-play video games, and tabletop games do not appear to be as good a value.  Tabletop games have core aspects, such as the social aspect, that video games generally don’t have. On the other hand video game players are becoming much more group oriented than they used to be, but the tradition and stereotype is still the solitary video game player.

Moreover, we’ve taken competition out of the schools in the USA, and rampant egalitarianism is blanketing the country.  And that means we want everyone to be the same and not let anyone stand out.  So competition has been taken out of many tabletop games and this will continue to be a trend.  Single player video games were never competitions, really, because you didn’t have an opponent and couldn’t lose.

The future of games may be less and less competition and more and more simple participation.  Moreover, cooperative games are “trending upward”, more than competitive games.  I’m happy with the trend to cooperative games personally, as I more or less quit playing games competitively when I was 25.  But a game, for me, requires intelligent opposition, which a cooperative card or board game like Pandemic cannot provide. Though I have recently figured out ways to achieve this in a co-op board game. The ideal game for this future is a role-playing game because the players can cooperate with one another and win or lose collectively yet they have intelligent opposition from the referee/GM that doesn’t exist in puzzles and doesn’t exist in video games because the computer is not nearly as smart as a human.  As time passes, computers will provide an opponent that is more and more like a human.  We’re not near there yet.

That is the end of the entire set.

Recent videos on my free "Game Design" channel on YouTube:

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"Monster" Tabletop Games

Musical analogy for understanding fundamental game types