They Will Play Your Game Wrong

September 29, 2008

I’m stealing a quote from the excellent gameplaywright blog, as a counterpoint to the stuff I quoted from Vincent earlier:

“Players will incentivise themselves to death. If the optimum path is boring, they will do it, then blame you, then quit.” —Dave Williams

In many folks’ perspective, you don’t worry about those players. A game is a tool and if they use the tool to poke themselves in the eye with over and over, it’s not your responsibility. However, I would argue that it’s not always obvious what you’re supposed to do with a tool. Maybe they assumed it was, y’know, eyedrops. But I do think that there is definitely danger in, as many traditional games do, overcompensating for people who may or may not be 1) idiots and, more importantly, 2) not part of your target audience.

So the truth, I suspect, lies somewhere between Vincent and Dave here. I’m just not sure what that means. Can you design a game assuming people will play it “wrong”? And if so, how? Mo and Brand have been talking a lot about building flexibility and local player/group decisions into the mechanics. I think there’s something to that, but I’m not sure I’ve got enough experience to do that in a sophisticated fashion yet.

4 Responses to “They Will Play Your Game Wrong”

  1. jscoble Says:

    “Can you design a game assuming people will play it “wrong”? And if so, how?”

    Well, one hopes aggressive alpha & beta testing helps iron some of that out. But there are so many stories of Ultima Online where people played it…well, maybe not wrong, but “not as intended.”

    And then there was the Old School way of playing City of Heroes (where you could train a whole level of enemies and then blow ’em all up good), which got heavily overhauled in midstream causing lots and lots and lots of anguish.


  2. Jesse: Sure, it’s important that playing the game “wrong” doesn’t utterly destroy the game, but I’m more interested in ensuring that playing your game “wrong” is also still fun for the play group (focusing on the “it’s not fun and they stop playing” part of the quote). In tabletop roleplaying, unlike MMORGS say, the handful of players at a particular table are only liable to themselves, so playing the game “wrong” doesn’t really harm anyone else. And, everyone at the table enjoys it, who says that “wrong” can’t be oh so right?

    If you can build in enough flexibility so that the game can follow the bliss of the players, that’s cool. But there’s a challenge to implementing that while still having the game have a sense of purpose and aboutness, not being a open canvas of white bread (“Infinite choices! You can have white bread, white bread, white bread, or any other white bread you can imagine!”).

  3. Meserach Says:

    Well, players can play your game “wrong” in two ways:

    1) They can fail to follow, whether by negligence or deliberate action, certain parts of the text;

    2) They can differ on those aspects of play not spelled out in the text (what Ron calls the “murk”, I think, so long as it’s understood to also be inclusive of all aspects of the socialisation of the group)

    Accidental type 1 wrongness can be addressed through a clear text, stressing key and important mechanical texts, and having play aids, rules summaries and the like available as part of the game package. It can also be addressed by

    By contrast, you’re never going to be able to stop deliberate type 1, and nor should you desire to. If people deliberately drop bits of the rules and have a sucky time, well, they changed it.

    Type 2 “wrong” play is the far more interesting and difficult type, and where the differing cultures of play/modes of practice come in.

    There’s a good case to be made that games should simply endeavour to be more explicit about the play culture required – shining light into the murk. I think some texts miss a trick by relegating this type of content to a “play advice” chapter at the back, failing perhaps to internalise the Lumpley Principle’s key lesson that those bits of play advice, if integral to game functioning, are just as much part of the system as the stuff you put in the “rules” chapter.

    The difficulty of building flexibility into the mechanics is that we don’t end up with a D&D type problem, where a game designed with near-laser focus on monster-killing, loot-collecting and power-enhancing has play advice chapters claiming that one can still use those rules more or less intact to create a game of Machiavellian intrigue and studied character development. In short, doesn’t it start to say that System Doesn’t Matter After All?

    I’d like my flexibility to be explicit: “If you want play style X, Use rules A, B, and C. If you prefer Y, drop Rule A, Use Rule B, Amend C as follows, and Add Rules E-G. Play style Z is incompatible with this rule-set, try game Q instead.”

  4. Callan Says:

    I think rather than say the users played it wrong, the author should take a long hard look at himself and ask why the optimum path in his game is the most boring one?

    Or to put it rantily, why are people making piece of crap cars, so to speak, then blaming the end users for just driving them (and having break downs) rather than fixing them up?

    There’s this detached ‘Oh, I’m just making a tool, it’s up to the users to…’ attitude, to the extent that even if the tool itself is bent, ‘it’s up to the users to…’ etc etc.


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