Archive for December, 2011

Our Product is an Experience

December 28, 2011

Calling them “games” is just an excuse, a pretense to get people to act in ways they otherwise might not.

This isn’t an original observation, of course; it seems like every game studies book that gets published these days opens with a similar declaration. Huizinga called this characteristic, among other things, the magic circle and noted that “there is no formal difference between play and ritual,” since both create a heightened awareness or reframing of otherwise normal activities that encourages participants and observers to behave differently and treat the experience as something distinct from everyday life.

As I noted several years back, I can get you to do anything (or nearly anything) by putting it in the context of a game. When we talk about “game design” in this context, what we’re actually talking about is experience design. While there are strong traditions about what games entail that seem to place restrictions around the kinds of experiences we can design, in reality, we have the entire breadth of possible human experiences to use as our canvas to create “games” or, more accurately, experiences.

This is what I meant in the post linked above, when I said that “Our river has run into the ocean.” Our river, of course, is games and the ocean is all of human experience. As the metaphor attempts to suggest, they’re both essentially made of the same stuff, but “games” are traditionally confined to a narrow channel while human experience contains and connects everything and everyone. Categories, even categories as broad as “games,” are too limiting to accurately describe the current state of game design and play, which is pretty crazy considering how long games have existed as recognized things in human society. We’re probably stuck with “games” for a while, lacking a better term to describe the things we create (at least one that isn’t incredibly pretentious), but it’s important for us to recognize “games” as a term of convenience and not an accurate description of everything that’s possible in our medium. (This is partially why arguing over what is and isn’t a game is kinda silly; “games” isn’t the be-all and end-all of what we do anyway. And “gamification” is a somewhat problematic concept, since games aren’t especially distinct from other kinds of experiences.)

What exactly is our medium, then? I would call it something like experience design, except that Wikipedia informs me that “XD” is already a thing. Luckily, if we can trust Wikipedia at all, I mean something roughly similar to the industry definition, at least in terms of its focus on human experiences, adjusting behavior, and being highly interdisciplinary and cross-medium.

However, experience design from a games tradition (dare we call it XP design?) differs significantly in perspective and focus from the marketing background of XD. We’re not designing an experience to market a product (that’s what we do with demos) but as a thing in and of itself: the experience is the product.

That, I would argue, is critical to remember. To describe it in crude semantic terms — just for the purpose of this argument — rules, books, PDFs, cards, images and diagrams, verbal explanations, texts of all kinds, are not the game, at least not in and of themselves. A game is not something you can buy or sell; those are simply the tools or materials for playing the game. A game only exists as an experience, though experiences can happen in all sorts of ways, not just in the ways we typically consider part of play: reading texts, looking at images, “lonely fun,” etc. Put in these terms, the act of designing a game, I would argue, is not designing the materials used to play it, but designing an experience (or, really, a range of experiences) that can be had — in which some materials may play a useful role, but maybe they are just everyday objects that you are using for different purposes, not necessarily things or texts you designed from scratch.

Likewise, I would suggest that thinking about games as commercial products is a velvet prison. Yes, you can certainly create great games that are commercial products. That’s why it’s a velvet prison! It’s supposed to be nice and comfortable and full of terrific, fun things. But human experience, in all its variety, is full of things that can’t be easily commodified, either because they contain things that are intangible or irreplicable or because not many people are all that interested in or capable of experiencing them. In the same fashion, you could design an amazing game that only one person is ever able to play. That’s a terrible commercial product, unless they are a very rich patron, but it might be an incredible experience for that person — and maybe even the people they tell about the experience. Surely it’s still worth doing even if you can’t sell hundreds of copies of it, just like a myriad other things in life.

So, please, design an experience that exists as an oral tradition or ritual practice, not something written down. Design a physical experience that is more like a sport or dance. (Have you tried to read descriptions of sports on Wikipedia? They’re nearly impossible to understand and provide a terrible idea of what the sport is like to play or watch!) Design an interdisciplinary experience that spans the boundaries between “games” and other categories of human experience. And, when you do that, be confident that what you’re doing is not crazy or strange or experimental, not really. It may look that way from the perspective of the boats on the river, but from a broader perspective — when you’re sailing out with the ships on the ocean — it looks just fine. It doesn’t matter if one person experiences it or a million: if it matters to you, it’s worth doing.

And maybe, sometimes, you’ll end up creating something that can be easily turned into a commercial product that fits an established category — like a card game. That’s great too! There’s never anything wrong with making something you love that brings other people joy. But remember that there’s more out there, there’s the whole world of human experience, and it’s worth experiencing, playing with, and using as the medium of our creations.

When people ask why games are important, how they can possibly make any difference in the world, I just have to laugh, because “games” are essentially the same thing as life, just reordered in different ways. How could anything be more important? What else is there?

Love and Happy New Year!

The Tentative Plan

December 28, 2011

Here’s my tentative plan for being the change that I want to see. It has a somewhat different tone from one of my standard posts, so forgive me.

There are many ways to get involved in indie game design, Game Chef and other design contests being one of the easiest. However, there’s very little organized assistance in helping a designer progress from a working draft to a “finished” draft — whether that’s intended for commercial publication or just free distribution. Yes, there’s a library of knowledge on various forums and blogs for designers to haphazardly search through; there’s great people you can talk to briefly at conventions and meetups; but there’s relatively few sources of sustained support and structure to ensure that progress is actually made. Instead, most folks have to blaze a path on their own.

If you’re lucky enough to build a working relationship with an established indie games publisher — Galileo Games, Evil Hat, or even how Nathan Paoletta and Meg Baker are publishing games originally authored by other designers — those folks can provide that assistance, but I have a feeling that many folks want the assistance that an experienced publisher can provide while still wanting at least the option of publishing the game themselves. Or they would like to release the game for free, target a limited audience, or use some other publishing model that makes it more difficult for a commercial indie publisher to want to become involved.

My tentative plan for Corvid Sun, then, is for it to be an explicitly non-commercial indie games developer (explicitly not a publisher), providing volunteer preparation and publications assistance to other game designers, including both experienced and up-and-coming folks. This is something I wish existed for me, someone dedicated to helping me achieve my own goals for my games, so I want to offer it to other designers in the hopes that it’s something we all need. While I’m hoping that Corvid Sun can develop a close relationship to one or more established indie games publishers — providing some optional outlets for traditional publication — it’s main purpose will be helping folks prepare their game for whatever release or publication plan they have in mind, whether they release it for free, publish it themselves, publish it through another company, etc. Consequently, all the support I provide to other people’s games through Corvid Sun will ultimately owned by them, to be used however they see fit as long as they acknowledge the assistance somewhere.

The Stage One project is going to be a good trial run for what I want to do in the future, since it operates according the the principles I’ve described here, though the ultimate goal of a single 200-copy print run of an short anthology booklet was something I established in the beginning. That makes sense for an anthology where multiple designers are going to be submitting games, since trying to negotiate collective goals later would be much more complicated. But for assisting with individual games — even where there are 2 or more designers involved — the plan would be to listen to their goals for the project and help them achieve those.

Now, especially since this is going to be a totally volunteer operation, I’m only going to provide support for projects that I believe strongly in. But I honestly encounter those all the time, especially through the design contests I’m involved in (Game Chef, Stage One, Murderland). I’m certainly happy to talk to folks about their projects and see if it’s something I want to become involved in, but I’m also planning to contact potential partners directly and continue to find terrific contest drafts that could use some additional support. That said, I’m going to try to stay aware of my prior commitments and not overburden myself. Right now, I’m pretty much booked solid, but hopefully I can finish up a few things soon and have more time to explore new projects.

In any event, this is one of the things I think indie games really needs going forward, acknowledging that achieving the goals you have for your game can be really difficult, especially if you’re working on your own. But also that indie publishing — like the games themselves — is really a bunch of different activities that all go under the same name. You can’t measure the success of different games using the same yardstick, because it all depends on what your goals for the game are, both in terms of design and publication. Corvid Sun is my attempt at trying to acknowledge and support that, attempting to give back to the community what I’ve gotten from it — in a way that supplements the things I already do through Game Chef — while also leveraging the experience and expertise I have through my day job in think-tank publishing.

“Core Games”: Learning from thatgamecompany

December 20, 2011

So my current favorite indie video game designers are the folks at thatgamecompany, makers of Flow, Flower, Way [edit: actually made by Chris Bell before he joined TGC], and the upcoming game Journey. I just stumbled across this really cool diagram and description on their webpage and wanted to talk about it. Some of this is marketing text, yeah, but there’s clearly something important going on here, for them to be so successful at producing the kinds of games that they do.

thatgamecompany designs and develops artistically crafted, broadly accessible video games that push the boundaries of interactive entertainment. We respect our players and want to contribute meaningful, enriching experiences that touch and inspire them. We seek talent that values integrity and personal growth within an environment of intense collaboration and experimentation.

We call our games “core games.” Core games appeal not only to existing hardcore and casual gaming markets, but also to dormant gamers and even non-gamers. Core games reach these new markets because they are easier and less time consuming, yet possess emotionally rich and powerful interactive experiences.

My reaction to this is: yes, yes, yes. I definitely feel like it describes the kind of audiences I want to make games for. What’s your reaction?

Interregnum: Another Short Game about Tyrants

December 20, 2011

This is a preliminary draft, inspired by Heads of State, which Mark Vallianatos and I will collaboratively develop into a one-page or one-spread dedication to his anthology. It still needs some work, but the core seems solid.

Your homeland has recently joined the modern world, throwing off the shackles of colonialism and/or the clutches of a dying monarchy, becoming not a kingdom or protectorate but an independent nation-state. Or, at least, that was the plan. In practice, no single leader or coalition exerts complete authority, despite various claims to a mandate to rule. Instead, each player represents a warlord, strongman, party chief, dynastic heir, puppet ruler, soldier of fortune, or foreign military governor. The game ends when one player has consolidated their rule and suppressed other challengers, at least for the time being.

Take an index card and write the following on it, in consultation with the other players:

  • Your role in the glorious and successful national liberation movement, which may include your relationship with the other players. You may not have actually fought on the side of the revolutionaries, serving the dying monarchy or foreign occupiers instead, at least at first.
  • 2-3 ways you seek to improve your country’s lot, either domestically or internationally.
  • 2-3 values you seek to uphold as a political leader, proving that you are better than the jackals and vultures who have ruled this land for so long.

Find or create a map showing the former borders of the dead empire or colony that you have inherited. First, mark the boundaries of any neighboring states or colonies, ensuring that at least one — during the chaos of the glorious liberation — has claimed territories traditionally a part of your country. Then, each player should claim their own area of control, adhering to or ignoring boundaries previously drawn by the other players as they please. Any territory claimed by multiple players or neighboring states is considered “contested”; shade those portions to indicate that no one is fully in control of those areas.

Take turns. On your turn, describe a single “move” you make, using your authority as a political leader. This can by anything you like: conducting a military campaign, levying taxes, redistributing land, freeing the serfs, nationalizing industries, holding an election, etc. You are obviously involved in multiple efforts, but this is the highlight of your activities this year.

If no other player resists your effort, it happens. As the person with the power to make it happen however you want, you decide what the results are, but every other player proposes a possible consequence of your actions (violence, economic issues, personal crises, etc.) and you must pick at least half of them, rounded up, to actually occur. If these consequences violate your goals and principles or your heroic legacy as a liberator, adjust those written descriptions to match the person you have become. You must maintain consistency, at least in your own written understanding of yourself, though you’re welcome to lie to others and yourself out loud, obfuscating what really happened before the next player takes their turn.

If one or more players resists your proposal, through their own political might and resources, each player involved rolls a six-sided die and the winner carries the day. Each player must then accept a number consequences — proposed by the other players, as described about — equal to the number they rolled on their die. If there is a tie between sides, a stalemate occurs, as the competing parties clash to no clear resolution, creating consequences but making no real progress.

At any time, instead of changing the goals, principles, and heroic legacy on your sheet, you can rip up your card and retire from political life, typically through exile or death, but there might be other options, depending on the fictional circumstances. Optionally, you can give up your own card and join the team of another player, maintaining your own turn and making your own choices, but being limited to following their written goals and principles (not the image they describe aloud) and helping build their legacy. If you have joined someone else, you can only leave the game if a player — including yourself — spends their turn arranging your death or disappearance and is successful.

The game ends when the players agree on who will ultimately be the undisputed ruler(s) of whatever remains of the old empire, even if their rule is still currently challenged.

Stage One: Tracking Progress

December 18, 2011

Stage One is a short anthology of video game-inspired tabletop games that I’m organizing. This post collects all the current information about it and will be updates with its current status.


Original submission guidelines
List of submitted drafts
– Initial reviewing (Stage 1-1, Stage 1-2, Stage 1-3)


Games with Submitted “Final” Drafts (** = edited and returned to author)

If you have a new draft and are ready to progress to this stage (editing and layout), submit a link in the comments below or email me your most recent version.

– Fall of the Titans**
– Heavy is the Head

Games with Invitations (* = tentatively accepted)

If you’ve received an invitation to submit your draft to the anthology, I will add your game here. Send me a comment or email to let me know if you have tentatively accepted. All contributors will maintain all rights to their games and even get full rights to the results of the editorial and layout work that I do for your game. I just get rights to release your game as part of the initial 200-copy print run of the anthology. Anything else will have to be negotiated later.

– Roguish (Evan Silberman)*
– Fall of the Titans (Scott Slomiany)*
– Differences (Jackson Tegu)*
– Half of Everything is Luck (Mike Olson)*
– Heavy is the Head (Simon Carryer)*

Games being Revised

This is a list of games that I know the designers are continuing to work on and still tentatively plan to release as part of Stage One (either the first anthology or maybe a second, later one). If you think you should be on or off this list, let me know in comments or over email.

– Resident Evil+ (Michael Wight)
– Return to Maniac Mansion (Nick Wedig)
– Fortunes and Thieves (Steve Hickey)
– Dragon and Warrior (Orion Canning)
– Lost Colony (Mendel Schmiedekamp)

Games of Unknown Status

These are games where I haven’t heard anything in particular from the author or read about any ongoing work on a forum or blog. If you think your game should be in another category, let me know.

– An Analog Tribute to Gauntlet (Christopher Weeks)
– A Few More Heroes (Stephen Bretall)
– Scrabblenauts (Nick Wedig)
– Naughty Duck’s Dream Adventure (A.D. Henderson)
– Pokemon Paper Edition (Robert Bruce)
– Paperboy Unleashed (Lorenzo Trenti)

Games Not Pursuing the Anthology

These are games that are pursuing independent publication or which the author has decided to stop working on, at least for now. That’s totally cool and I definitely support anything people want or don’t want to do with their games! Let me know if your game should be added to this category, just so I can make sure I don’t miss any. You’re welcome, of course, to resume working towards participation at any time.

– Mushroom Kingdom Stories (Hans Chung-Otterson)
– The Fissure (Trevor Waldorf)

Stage One: Reviewing 1-3

December 17, 2011

Last batch! Watch out for the Bullet Bills! Thanks to everyone for making this event so awesome, and I apologize deeply for not getting to this last set of reviews sooner. Now I’m excited to play these and work on putting the anthology together in the new year!

13. Half of Everything is Luck (Goldeneye): Mike Olson

This game is straight-up terrific. Since it’s a solo game, you should play try it out right now, if you haven’t already. Mike has had strong showings in the past couple years of Game Chef, but, despite his excellent design skills, I was admittedly skeptical about a Goldeneye-inspired game. While I played the multi-player shootout for countless hours, I’m not generally a huge first-person-shooter fan. However, Mike knocked this one out of the park. Using college-ruled paper to measure distance to objectives is genius, plus it gives the game a strong crafty, DIY feel. The guards act like guards in shooters: it doesn’t matter how many times you hit them, you need to hit them in a very specific way to kill them, which is hilarious. Both the first level, the dam, and the outline of stage two (“The Facility”) are evocative and sound exciting to play. There are a few weaknesses in the text — notably, a couple of the examples are confusing to read, the opposite of what you want in an example — but, along with the Shadow of the Colossus-inspired game, this really takes solo tabletop play in an interesting direction that I hope we can keep exploring. Even the name of this game is great, simply reeking of Brosnan-era James Bond. There are sections of this that’ll need more playtesting and analysis from hardcore min-maxing gearheads to ensure they’re challenging but not impossible, but this game definitely gets an invitation.

14. Lost Colony (Alpha Centauri): Mendel Schmiedekamp

Parts of this remind me of a game I playtested some years back, maybe an early draft of Mars Colony (?), crossed with the line-drawing mechanic from It’s Complicated. Overall, it’s pretty successful, though I feel like I’d need to play it to get a better sense of what the experience would be like, because it’s hard to tell just from the rules. I’m left with a few practical questions — what is the “T” in the technologies after stage zero? how do we decide what later technologies actually are, since they are semi-random associations of keys? do Wonders or civilizational changes mean anything? — my main concern is about the imaginative content of play, or the lack thereof, which isn’t really specified much in the short text. I can see this game going either way: fleshing out moves into imaginative encounters (not quite scenes, more vignettes or montages) that involve a few players, or being much more like a light strategic boardgame, where you make your move, interpret it, and then move on. Either way, it’d be nice to have a stronger sense from the designer which is preferable or if a mixture of approaches — depending on player preferences — is also doable. Overall, though, I think it’s ready for internal playtesting and maybe a bit of outside playtesting to see if it measures up to the designer’s vision in practice and (importantly) can sustain interest after the first stage or two. Nine stages, the number recommended in the text, seems like a lot.

15. Pokemon Paper Edition (Pokemon): Robert Bruce

I’m probably one of the only people in the world who owns a copy of the Pokemon Jr. Adventure Game, Set 1: Pokemon Emergency!, though I think it was actually recommended to me by Jason Morningstar (?). It was the only box set published by WOTC in a planned line of Pokemon tabletop RPGs for kids. Robert, you really need to find a copy of this game and play it, because you’ve created a game that’s remarkably similar — no surprise, considering the source material! — though yours captures certain aspects of Pokemon better, especially the elemental interactions between Pokemon. Overall I have two main concerns: (1) as with Mushroom Kingdom Adventures, will this game still be grabbing and enthralling when it’s about “MegaPets” (or whatever) and their owners, rather than Pokemon trainers; and (2) rather than having all the Pokemon in a separate appendix (when everything was supposed to fit on two pages), I’d like to see them worked directly into the text. If both those issues are resolved, then I think we can start talking about the next steps. Removing the Nintendo IP while maintaining interest is going to take a bit of thought and work, so I’d just like to see what this game looks like then before we move forward, assuming Robert’s still interested in being part of the anthology.

16. Heavy is the Head (Civilis/zation): Simon Carryer

This is another game that’s seen some play since the contest ended. Trying to model Civilization (yes, we spell it with a zed in the U.S.) is a brilliant, ambitious goal — like with Alpha Centauri — and I think Simon takes a good shot at it, though there are a few remaining issues. It’s essentially an Apocalypse World hack for 2 players, but one player — the one in charge of the main civilization — seems like they will be having much more fun than the other. While I like a lot of what’s going on, I keep thinking that it would be much more fun if it was re-framed as a multi-player game where each player controlled a neighboring civilization on the same map. The choices made by a single player, after all, seem much more interesting when viewed in comparison with different choices made by other players. You wouldn’t necessarily need 5-6 PC civilizations, but maybe 2-3 plus a couple other NPC civilizations. Ultimately, this may not be the direction the designer wants to go. From reading some of the playtest comments, it sounds like Simon might be exploring other ways in which to make Player Two’s role more active. Overall, this still needs a bit more polishing and playtesting before it’s ready to submit to the anthology, but I hope that ultimately happens because it’s a great take on a genre that’s only been partially explored in tabletop RPGs before. The politics grid is an especially neat thing and I hope that it has a more central presence in the final version. The way Civilization views human history in a social darwinist fashion is all kinds of problematic, but it’s definitely something worth capturing and messing with in a game like this.

17. Paperboy Unleashed (Paperboy): Lorenzo Trenti

Wow, I will admit, this is not at all what I expected from a Paperboy-inspired game. Lorenzo really took the premise and ran with it! I really like how the paperboy is de-personalized: no one player plays him, but you collectively determine his fate, which seems reminiscent of the faceless protagonists of early video games (and some later ones: Link and Masterchief are still like that). The lists of good and bad encounters are classic (“breakdancer”) and overall the game reads almost like a tabletop parody of experimental Nordic larp / Jeepform. You describe encounters, roll dice, and either take harm or not (symbolically ripping up a sheet of newspaper if you take harm), and have encounters with the Grim Reaper, all the while trying to learn lessons from the harm you’ve taken so you can overcome death itself. It’s wacky and dark and kinda hilarious at the same time, just due to the absurdity of the juxtaposition of mortal doom and an 8-bit kid on a bike. I’m honestly not sure where Lorenzo should go with this but I double dare anyone to play it and hopefully some actual play experiences will illuminate things further. In any event, I hope it turns out to be a blast in practice, because it’s utterly insane and would be great to have in the anthology.

18. The Fissure (Guild Wars): Trevor Waldorf

As with the other video games that I didn’t have much background in, I spent some time watching Guild Wars footage on Youtube, so I could say some intelligent things about this game. I’m not sure it helped that much in this case, though, since the action seems to occur mostly in the abstract, not connected that closely to fictional events. The mechanics take place in real-time, which is neat, but involve rolling d8s over and over again until you match the role made by another player (modified, I think, by your class). I guess this symbolizes that you need the cooperation of other players to accomplish anything? But then once one pair of players have made their rolls, the last player just attempts to tie their previous roll. Once you pass a set number of different types of rolls at your current location, you can move to a new location and do it all over again. Overall, the map structure is cool, but the actual fictional things that you are attempting to do seem to be a bit lost in all this rolling, though the descriptions of the objectives on the map locations are actually pretty interesting. They just need to connect more closely to what the players are actually doing in play. Also, I can’t figure out from the rules how you actually take damage. Does it happen when you haven’t rolled a match in 30 seconds? Players can make a lot of rolls in 30 seconds, though, so it doesn’t seem likely to happen. In any event, this definitely needs some internal playtesting to iron out some of the kinks and allow the designer to see what parts of their vision came through and what parts need some work. Some good ideas, but not quite there yet.