Archive for the 'Walton-Style Game Fu' Category

Limited Edition Games

January 15, 2012

Archived here from a discussion on SG.

I’ve been thinking a lot about limited edition games because some of my most interesting game concepts probably have a rather limited audience, due to both interest and the necessity of certain physical components.


I bought a copy of Cunningham & Venezky’s Diaspora playing cards a few years back, which describe humans abandoning civilization and animals slowly taking over the cities. There are only 300 decks in existence and maybe only a few owned by members of the indie games community (because a link to it was posted on SG a while back). So if I design a game that uses the deck, it would be a very limited-edition thing, only playable with people who owned a copy of the deck. Could be a big hit at conventions, since it might be your only chance to play it! But not very effective as a commercial product for the masses.

Another thought: my game Metrofinal is really crazy and weird, but the components are really difficult to produce in a way that makes them reusable. Players have to be able to draw on the game board and write on the components, but — unlike Risk Legacy or something — it’s a single session game, not a campaign-length experience. So either I produce components as pads of sheets in a boxed set — sorta like Luke and Jared did with Freemarket — or I produce the game in packets of printed products that you dispose of afterwards: you’d effectively purchase the material for playing the game once and would have to buy a new set to play again. Maybe you destroy the components in a ritual fashion afterwards? Still pondering that. Maybe it just shouldn’t be turned into a commercial product at all.

Lastly, I own two copies of Hodge & Wright’s landmark photographs of the Small Magellanic Cloud, which are 11×11″ cardboard prints in a box of 200+ sheets. These will eventually be crucial components for playing Fingers on the Firmament, where players will draw on the star photos to make maps of space. There’s probably a limit to how many copies of the game I can hand-assemble from used copies of Hodge & Wright’s prints. Plus, the 11×11″ dimensions are going to make them really hard to ship or do much else with. So maybe I’ll make 20-50 copies and that’s all the copies that will ever exist.

I realize that many designers feel a natural desire for their games to be played by as many people as possible, but sometimes an experience can be more special, intimate, and valuable if it is extremely limited and special. And, as indie designers, we’re not dependent on selling a bunch of games for our livelihood, like the folks at WOTC or even Green Ronin. Nobody’s going to lose their job if you just sell 10 copies to the folks who really believe in and desire your game.

Explicit Procedures and the Permission to Decide

January 13, 2012

One of the projects that I’ve been doing volunteer consulting on lately, as part of the new plan for Corvid Sun, is actually a previously planned collaboration with two old friends: They Became Flesh with Elizabeth and Shreyas. These thoughts came out of our discussion today—pretty basic and I’m surely not the first to say this kind of thing, but it’s still important.

If there are sections of your game that can be effectively captured with really explicit procedures, then, by all means, write them out that way. There are enough emergent properties inherent in play — from the other players, the fictional situation, etc. — that you don’t need folks to have to make up large swaths of “how to play your game.” Tell them WHEN to do WHAT and HOW, step by step, with just the contextual info they need to make it happen.

However, there are plenty of really important and meaningful aspects of play that can’t be effectively captured that way, especially if your game is intended to have a meaningful emotional impact on those playing. And sometimes the mechanical feel of the game demands more judgment calls than strict procedures.

But even in those cases, I think it works best if the text explicitly empowers the players to make those judgment calls instead of abandoning them to decide things for themselves, if that makes sense. When texts disclaim responsibility or say “just wing it!”, they feel incomplete, like the designers have copped-out or doesn’t really have any clue what the players should do. But when texts say, “examine the situation from this perspective and make a reasonable decision,” they feel empowering and liberating. Then the players know that they have some leeway in this area and can safely decide things to the best of their ability without being too worried about making the wrong decision.

Practically, from the perspective of what the players do at the table, it can be nearly the same thing, but games in the latter mode feel more supportive, like they’re on the side of the players (and thus, in my experience, get played more often).

These two styles work really well when combined together. When the things that need to be done in an exact way are explained very explicitly, the players can do them (surprise!) and know that it’s more or less what the designer intended. And then they feel more confident when the designer says, “there’s some leeway here, make a judgment call,” because they’re operating within a bounded space between explicit procedures.

But if everything is somewhat muddy, if it’s not clear when you should follow procedures exactly (or if there even are standard procedures) and when you should decide for yourself (and how to do that), then you’ve left the players to assemble their own game out of content you’ve haphazardly thrown at them. Some of them will still have a ton of fun, probably, since I’m sure many of your ideas are cool and they’re smart, creative people. But that’s really more to their credit than to yours, as a designer, since there’s no way for their fun experience to be consistently replicated by other folks.

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!

“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?

Randomness and “What Happens”

September 8, 2011

So I was thinking about the chorus of “play to find out what happens” that Vincent describes at one of his PAX panels.

Traditionally, the “what happens” emerges from a number of places, but a couple of the major ones are:

  • what the players choose to do (the biggest one, no question); and
  • what the dice say about their attempts to do things (which often leads to yet more interesting choices).

And I realized one of the things I really like about fortune-less games is that the interesting part of determining “what happens” has nothing to do with the dice, which in less awesome situations can become a crutch that provides tension to otherwise uninteresting “choices” or narrative moments.

Even in games like Apocalypse World, I’ve occasionally seen GMs (including myself, though less and less, I hope) reaching for the dice — especially “Act Under Fire,” which can be a catch-all move — when they think there should be mechanical tension but are unsure or too tired to set up the necessary narrative leverage to create a potent situation with an interesting choice.

Sure, in fortuneless games, you can still do cheap shock revelations and set up other lame choices that aren’t really choices (“Are you willing to kill… YOUR OWN FAMILY MEMBER!” “Choose between your own safety and that of the one you love!”). But there’s no dice to fall back on or help you spice up otherwise lame situations, which I find forces me to be better and think smarter about how I run games. It forces me to be a better GM and player, basically, where other kinds of games make it easier for me to fall on bad habits or otherwise mess things up.

In a game with dice, a relatively straightforward situation — “You’re fighting a dude for no reason!” — can be vaguely compelling just due to the uncertainty of how things will go down, but in a game without dice — just the interaction of player choices — you’re forced to try harder than that. Yes, good games that have fortune mechanics push you in that direction too, but sometimes I just want to be thrown into the ocean (without a life jacket) so I can really learn to swim.

Some Principles for a “Story Now” Video Game

June 2, 2011

Over on SG, I objected to Jamie’s claim that “what [indie roleplayers] know [about storytelling in games] can’t be done on a computer yet,” saying that “Complex, emergent, player-driven stories are totally possible on a computer RIGHT NOW. Heck, they were possible 10 years ago.”

Johnzo called me on this, saying he was “a little skeptical. Can you do a thought experiment on what something like this might look like?” And I’m not one to pass up an opening like that, so here’s a few basic principles — drawn from 10 years of involvement in indie roleplaying — that I’m going to attempt to apply to video game design, at least in this imaginary exercise.

1. “Don’t repeatedly hand the players a fish; teach them to fish.”

A “story now” video game doesn’t tell a story to the players; it gives the players the tools and support that they need for telling their own story. This is a fundamental shift in design orientation and was the grounding principle of LowFantasy, the imaginary iPhone app I sketched out for Christian Griffen a couple years back.

2. “The game is not the GM or the other players; its just the rules.”

Likewise, the game text (in this case, interpreted as code by the computer) cannot substitute for the other human beings that you need to play the game, even with the best AI programming people can turn out these days. And you can’t just play the game with yourself due to issues like the Czege Principle (which says that creating and resolving the same conflicts often isn’t very fun). Similarly, bouncing a ball and catching it isn’t nearly as fun as playing catch or some other game with other people. Video games, at least as they are now, aren’t really that different.

3. “The most important interactions are not player-game, but player-player, mediated by the game.”

Derived from the above, the core of the game is not the players interacting with the “rules” or the “text” or whatever you want to call the computer-rendered content. Rather, the core is players making choices that affect — through the medium of the game — other real, live people and their choices. Really, in a way much more than most existing video games, this asks the game designer to leave the room, metaphorically speaking, to take themselves out of the equation and let the players talk to each other rather than commanding all the attention on the beautiful thing they’ve created. Sure, it may be super beautiful, but if it doesn’t facilitate interesting interactions between the players, it’s not doing what we’re asking it to, in this particular case.

4. “To naturally constrain a story, limit its scope.”

Games like Breaking the Ice and The Mountain Witch demonstrated pretty clearly that limiting players’ options doesn’t feel confining if there’s a relatively specific experience that they’re coming to the game for. You don’t need to allow players to go anywhere and do anything. Why would that make sense in the story? Why would they even want to do that? Instead, make them choose between the options that are actually available to them. Furthermore, if “story now” is about addressing the premise, then it’s critical to have one and have most things in the game point directly at it or at least in its general direction. Speaking of premise…

5. “Ask a question with your story, but leave it to the players to answer.”

In Apocalypse World, this is called either “leave yourself some things to wonder about” or “play to find out what happens.” Don’t answer the question in the rules or the players won’t get to answer it themselves. This requires both a lot of trust on the part of the game designer and often for them to sit on their hands. Don’t answer the question! Don’t even rig the game to reach specific results! Don’t do it!

Anyway, there’s my starting point.

Connecting the Present to the Premise

April 18, 2011

Vincent says some really smart things in this comment over on Anyway, about the importance of connecting what a player is doing now to what the overall premise of the game is. This is something that I felt was really missing from a lot of the games I grew up playing, even ones I really enjoyed.

How does what you do in Rifts connect to the idea of resisting an oppressive neo-Nazi regime or eking out a living in a post-apocalyptic world (if that’s even what that game is about)? How does what you do in In Nomine relate to guiding humanity towards their glorious destiny or dark fate (if that’s even what the game is about)? In some of those games, part of the problem is that the aboutness of the game is never really entirely clear, or even a set of different premises that you could choose from, despite some solid efforts at clarification by the writers (talking about tone and such). In other cases, even if the premise is clear, the connection between premise and player actions isn’t clear (as is notoriously the case in Nobilis, the “what do we do now?” problem).

Definitely something to keep in mind, especially for some of my weirder ideas like Firmament, where the connection between premise and “what we do now” seems a bit vague.

The Process of Narration

April 17, 2011

Jamie Fristrom, who I finally met last week, is asking good questions about narration rights in GM-less games over on SG. Actually, I think Jamie’s one of the most interesting new voices to pop up there and lord knows SG needs some new interesting voices.

In any event, I wanted to log my response here, because laying it out explicitly helped me think more clearly about Geiger Counter and, also, how narration works in games with deterministic resolution, where the formal process of narration is especially crucial to structuring fictional outcomes.

Some of these games break narration rights down into various different steps or stages, yeah?

Like, in Geiger Counter, there’s:

  1. Deciding what/where/who the next scene is about (“Jack and Maura are meeting in the airlock”)
  2. Framing the scene (“So Jack’s just come back from printing out some readings and Maura is running a routine check on the space suits”)
  3. Playing characters (“Jack says, ‘Maura, can you double check these figures for me, they look really strange’…”)
  4. Adding new information to the story (“Maura says, ‘That’s impossible. It looks like something is alive inside that asteroid’…”)
  5. Invoking a threat (“The airlock starts activating by itself! The inner door shuts and the outer door is preparing to open!”)
  6. Invoking traits, gear, or other fictional circumstances (“Maura tosses Jack a space suit and struggles to put one on herself!”)
  7. Resolving the conflict after dice have been rolled (“Jack manages to get his suit on, but he loses consciousness just as he gets the seals closed”)
  8. Ending the scene (“And…. cut.”)

It’s not really the case that you can narrate whatever you want, whenever you want. There’s a process you have to go through, and the kinds of things you can narrate are restricted by what “stage” of a scene or the overall game that you’re in. As another example, in Geiger Counter, the menace doesn’t attack PCs until it has at least 2 dice to roll, it’s just hinted at. Or, in Mist-Robed Gate (another game you should look at), you can only hint at what you want before the blade has been uncovered.

Also, each time you narrate something, you’re restricted by what you or someone else has narrated previously. Like, above, when Maura’s player introduces the idea that there are things living inside the asteroid, she’s limited by the concept of Jack’s printout of some readings. The new information she introduces has to be something her character could figure out by looking at some printed data. And, if the contents of Jack’s printout had been established in a previous scene (he was taking a geological survey of the asteroid, say), then the kinds of information she can introduce is limited further. Likewise, if someone’s character isn’t in a scene, unless things change, they don’t get to play their character in that scene. That’s a pretty big restriction!

So it definitely matters how games structure the process of narration as well as the issue of “who has authority to say what.”

Taking a Break from Editing Talk

March 20, 2011

So, I’ve decided to take a personal break from the editing-related controversy and discussions for the next week. While I think there’s some good stuff being said and some important stuff that still could be said, the tone and just the stress of the back-and-forth was making me frustrated, so this weekend I haven’t really been following those discussions that closely and I probably won’t get back to them at least before the end of this week.

Please, if you feel like you’re having productive exchanges, don’t stop and wait for me! I plan on continuing to approve comments to my earlier blog posts as long as people want to keep having those discussions. But I thought I should let people know that I won’t be personally reading or responding to them for a bit. I’m also not reading any editing related threads on SG, Anyway, etc.

This isn’t related to anyone’s behavior or any specific post. I’m just taking a break for my own personal sanity and stress level. I’ve actually, ironically enough, got a bunch of editing work to do for Magic Missile, and I’m going to go do that and come back maybe after I’ve got a chance to get some perspective and distance.

Limitations as Virtues

March 18, 2011

Over here, Ryan asks what “punk” means, as far as indie publishing goes. I agree with Lukas that “punk” is not quite the right word, with all of its other associations.

Let me just quote Our Band Could Be Your Life, since it’s what I’ve been thinking about recently. In it, Michael Azerrad suggests that the American indie music scene of the 1980s was organized around “viewing as a virtue what most saw as a limitation.”

I think that works pretty well for us too.

On Publishing: What I Should Have Said

March 17, 2011

Based on my brother’s recommendation, I recently read part of Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life, about the rise of indie rock music in the 1980s. What it reminded me of — especially in the sections about “selling out” or bands “blowing up” or whatever — is that there will always be tensions in any independent publishing scene between two major goals on opposite sides of a spectrum, which for simplicity’s sake let’s call:

A. being just a kid with a dream;
B. beating The Man at his own game.

Being just a kid with a dream, in publishing terms, is showing up someplace — out of nowhere, knowing nobody — with just some hand-made photocopies in your backpack, ready to show people how badass your creation is.

The Man in the case of indie games is probably Hasbro: a big, faceless corporation who we can all pretend to loathe even as we buy and enjoy at least some of their games (shout out to Castle Ravenloft!), and aspire, at least in some respects, to emulate or triumph over their products, producing big beautiful, hardcover tomes that millions of people will buy and enjoy.

The points I wanted to make about this are as follows.

1. Being anywhere along the continuum between A and B is great. No place is better than any other, necessarily. Really, truly, honestly. This is something we still forget too often.

2. The continuum between these two goals is actually false or, at least, it applies across the entire range of choices involved in publishing. You can aspire to have a game that does dungeon crawling better than D&D but is still a stapled, photocopied booklet. You can decide to have production values somewhere in the middle (getting some fancy layout and printing hardcover books) but get your brother Ned to edit it and draw some pictures for you. There’s an infinite number of choices available and none of them is necessarily “right” or “wrong.” It all depends on your desires and goals for a specific project.

3. Even if you’re sure you want to try to beat Hasbro at their own game, it’s very difficult to jump right in and expect to do that right off the bat. If you look at the indie folks who are closest — like Luke Crane and Fred Hicks — they were themselves once kids with a dream. Luke literally showed up at GenCon with photocopies of the first version of Burning Wheel in his backpack. Fred and his comrades originally released Fate as a free PDF, just hoping a few other folks would find it interesting. How many years has it been since then? To get where they are, they’ve made consistent progress over time, project after project, rather than jumping in headfirst and losing their shirt.

4. By all means, take advice and learn from folks who’ve been involved in publishing before, but be honest with yourself about where you are in the process and what the next step is for you. It’s not coincidental, I don’t think, that a lot of the indie creators who are currently enthusiastic about editing are not planning their first game but their second or third. It is only natural, I would argue, to rethink how you did things the first time and do them differently the second or third time around. Does that mean everyone needs an editor on their second game? Not necessarily. Again, it’s all based on what your needs are and what you want for your game. Vincent recent had a great post that talked about approaching things gradually. Be true to yourself also means acknowledging the scale and complexity you’re capable of handling right now. Start with something manageable.

5. Really, in the end, question this advice as well. It’s not as if those of us who have done publishing before took the gradual, careful path in all cases. We tried things. We experimented. We screwed up. We did things we now regret and feel guilty about. Really, that’s all part of the process too. Don’t let the “be careful” advice of experienced folks prevent you from ultimately taking the plunge and publishing however works best for you. In the end, it’s your game and maybe you’ll blaze a new trail for others to follow. Maybe you do know better than we do. And, even if not, you’ll learn from your mistakes just like we did.

That’s more what I meant to say earlier. Yes, it’s contradictory. Welcome to publishing! 🙂

Quick Note and Apology

March 17, 2011

Fred Hicks has mentioned that some folks were really annoyed at my rant about editing. If so, I apologize, since I didn’t meant to make people upset, just to question some of the new consensus that seemed to be building about editing in the aftermath of Ben’s anti-playtesting post on Anyway and some other discussions.

In truth, “editor-serving drivel” was completely unfair to the motivations of folks with different opinions. Really, we all want to help folks make games that they’re proud of. If anyone’s still upset and wants to talk about it or tell me I’m a jerk, feel free to whisper me or email me (jaywalt, gmail).

That was not the best example of the kind of voice I aspire to be and hope I can gradually re-earn any respect that I’ve lost.