Tag Archives: game design

Healers Must Heal

World of WarcraftOn the heels of my discussion of implicit rules, I finally got around to reading “Outside oneself in World of Warcraft: Gamers’ perception of the racial self-other”, which was co-written by my dear friend Amanda Barton McBrian. It’s written in academic-ese, but it’s a fascinating read, especially in light of “What I Learned from OWbN Girls.” But this part of the paper tied into my last post in a very interesting way (it’s in paragraph 3.11):

Another respondent indicated “I don’t Role Play in games, so generally what my character is like is dictated by the class and my personality” (emphasis added). Since the game’s programming rarely attributes a certain set of behaviors to the avatars directly, based on initial creation, the implication of this respondent is that gamers also project certain behavioral obligations to certain classes: healers must heal, and thus must produce an empathetic personality. However, behaviors produced by any given class will itself vary from player to player, thus indicating that while the player perceives a certain behavior-per-class expectation, no such standard exists objectively.

That right there is a perfect example of what I called unexpected confinement. More specifically, even people who don’t consider themselves “roleplayers” will confine their activities based on their perceptions of their avatar. Further, “no … standard exists objectively” to predict what kinds of behaviors players will project onto their avatar. Sure, you can make informed assumptions — healers must heal, after all — but you cannot accurately predict how players will confine their play based on their avatar.

So how do you find out how real players will react to your design? Playtesting, playtesting, playtesting. Get real players in front of your game, shut the hell up, and watch them play it. Take notes. Don’t correct them or tell them how to play, but watch how they are playing. Playtesting in the design phase (or “internal playtesting”) is valuable, but playtesting with people outside of the design team (or “external playtesting”) is just as important for a new design.

Sadly, the timetables to get a game to market often allow for enough of the former, but not always enough of the latter (aside from fixes like bugs and rules corrections). In most cases, what happens is that designers learn from feedback from the past design to inform the next one.

If you have the time, I do suggest reading the paper. It has a number of fascinating little insights, and the team is very open about some of the conflicts and problems they had during the study, allowing you to put the data into the proper context. (Sadly, a lot of game design “science” doesn’t actually apply scientific rigor, so it’s refreshing to find a study that does.)

Implicit Rules and the “Air Bud” Defense

A Dog Cannot Play Basketball
A Dog Cannot Play Basketball

I have no idea if this scene actually exists in the movie Air Bud, but some version of it probably does.

Scene: A basketball court. A dog shows up, dressed to play.

Referee: Hey, get that dog out of here! Players only on the court!

Manager: That dog is a player!

Referee: That’s crazy! Dogs can’t play basketball.

Manager: (handing Referee a copy of the rulebook) Tell me where it says that only humans can play basketball!

Referee: (flipping through book) I’ll be darned. There’s no rule against it. The dog can play!

It’s ludicrous. It’s funny. And it neatly spells out a common conflict in game rules, especially games where the rules are constantly interpreted by people.

Most of what we commonly think of as “rules” are actually only a subsection of the rules being used. Rules that are spelled out are called explicit rules. But there are all sorts of rules that aren’t written out — gentlemen’s rules, social assumptions, and so-called “unwritten rules.” These undocumented but no less real collection of rules are called implicit rules.

The best way to showcase implicit rules in action is to use an example — preferably one a little more down-to-earth than golden retrievers playing basketball. Poker is big these days, so let’s use that. The rules for, say, Texas Hold ‘Em are well-documented. But let’s use another fictional movie scene to illustrate a point.1

Scene: A saloon table in the Wild West. The protagonist is in the middle of a long game with a number of desperate banditos. The protagonist stares as his cards, worried about how good his hand is.

Bandito #1: (staring at Protagonist) Well? Are you going to bet, or do we shoot you full of holes?

This is an implicit rule in play: “The player will make his bet in a reasonable amount of time.” It’s not a rule that’s written down, but it’s an implied rule of just about any game — you can’t just walk away from a game of Monopoly or Tic-Tac-Toe. Instead, players will either require you to return and actually make a turn, the game will go on without you, or some sort of victory will be conferred to the remaining player.

As a designer, some of these implicit rules you can anticipate, like “players should not cheat.” But a number you can’t, and sometimes these implicit rules change the experience of the whole game for the players. This can work a couple of different ways:

  • Unexpected confinement: I notice that this happens a lot to people who have played different versions of a particular game — the way it used to be done gets stuck in the heads of the players, and they confine their options in ways the current rules don’t intend. In some video games (particularly RPGs), I find that I sometimes follow the fictional logic of the world instead of “game logic,” and I end up missing parts of the game that the designers intended me to explore.
  • Exploits: On the other side, an implicit rule might blind the designer to a particular strategy that ends up providing an unfair advantage. Players find that putting rules together in a particular illogical but legal way provides a disproportionate value.

An interesting side point is that implicit rules may become explicit in certain environments. Most of the online poker games I’ve seen make the implicit rule of “bet in a reasonably amount of time” explicit by giving players a timer. Professionally competitive versions of games often incorporate a timer as well.

No matter how you look at it, though, there are always more rules to a game than the ones spelled out. As the rules gets more complex and have a larger legacy of previous games, that body of implicit rules gets larger as well, and has a greater potential to be out-of-sync between designer and player, or between players. But those rules are no less valid, even if they are harder to articulate.

So, no. Dogs cannot, in fact, play basketball.

  1. Yes, I know Texas Hold ‘Em rules weren’t around in the 19th century. I also know that no one in Hollywood actually cares about that fact. Just roll with it.

What I Learned from OWbN Girls

Permission to use granted by OWbN Girls and Meredith Gerber

No, it’s not a game. It’s an organization. But I still learned a lot about game design from OWbN Girls.

Over the past few days, I’ve been getting a trickle of drama in my various social networks around the group. For those not in the know, OWbN Girls is an advocacy group within the organization One World by Night that strives “to play fair in the gaming community, educate those that believe in the stereotype [of unempowered female gamers], and engage non-gamers in joining the community.” I admit that I’m not entirely sure what the drama is,1 but it brought me back to a particular thing I keep picking at: sexism (and really, many different “isms”) in gaming.

The conflict for me is that the extremes are disagreeable. It seems like whenever things like sexism comes up, the two options float to “suck it up and deal with it” or “turn into a politically correct wasteland.” I don’t agree with either option, so I keep picking at it because it’s important to me as an artist and a game designer. It’s a more complex problem than it appears on the surface, which is true of any important problem, and there isn’t a simple, tweet-sized answer. In talking on Twitter to the OWbN Girls account and admitting that it’s a bigger problem, I came up with some ideas on how to extract some of these threads.

Continue reading What I Learned from OWbN Girls

  1. Nor do I want to dig into it — I’ve had too many years of LARP drama in my past to actively look for it, thanks.

Politics: Throwing Chairs for Fun

Sorry for the delay. After the holiday I got wrapped up in working on Victorian Lost, as well as settling back into working on the World of Darkness MMO. Then I got sick, and didn’t feel like doing much of anything. But now I’ve settled back in, and ready to tackle more of my backlog of blog topics. In fact, bringeroflight over at LiveJournal asked me to talk about “writing political and social systems into an RPG, especially when it may end up in a low NPC LARP.”

Oh man, do I have opinions on this.

Politics in RPGs (and indeed, in fiction as a whole) are not the same as politics in real life. Without getting into a political debate about what is best, I’ll only say that in the real world, it’s often desirable when politicians are calm and productive and work together to accomplish something. In games, the opposite is true. In fact, I have often said that politics in LARPs should be more about throwing chairs than making policy. So, if you’re designing a political system, you need to think less about a functional political system and instead worry about making an interesting one. There are a few things to keep in mind with this.

Avoid Dictators. There’s a reason why the Prince in Masquerade went from the all-powerful elder in First Edition to being a toady largely at the control of a Primogen Council in Revised — dictators are boring on both sides of the equation. Sure, it’s fun for ten minutes to do whatever the hell you want, and there’s some narrative juice you can get from trying to overthrow a heartless bastard to prop up the next idealistic utopia that will ultimately fall to real-world pressures, blah blah blah, but the reality is that playing in that state is binary: you can do nothing or you can do whatever you want. The more people you can spread the power around to, the more interesting your political dynamic will become.

Power Needs To Mean Something. On the other hand, “dictator” has to seem like an attractive option. Playing in a town council that only has the authority to change school names or decide on the color of flower arrangements isn’t as exciting as playing a board of organized crime bosses who have the power of life and death. If political power means something, then people will hold on to it harder and work to get more of it, and so will everyone else. This means that those people will constantly clash against each other, which continues to generate entertaining situations. If you’re designing a game, this power has to matter to the mechanics at some level (which goes back to my thoughts on mechanics and setting — it all applies here as well).

There’s Not Quite Enough To Go Around. Part of that meaning has to revolve around resources, and specifically resources that are a little short of being enough for everyone. If there’s a game where all powers require a gem to use and there’s more than enough gems for everyone, there will be liberal sharing. Make the game where there’s enough gems to give to half of the players, and things get interesting. If you’re playing a group of vampires fighting over land, that land has to be small enough that not everyone can have a slice. (And yes, that land has to have a mechanic behind it.)

Politics are Player Vs. Player. I have run heavy political games both with players taking on all the political roles and with NPCs taking up most (or all) of those roles. In general, when the political choices are in the hands of the players, it’s a political game. When they’re in the hands of NPCs, it’s window dressing to a different game. It is certainly possible to have a strong political game where the players are all a coordinated group working against other factions to do something amazing or whatever, but on a basic level it’s no different than fighting a bunch of monsters. There’s a certain dynamic that comes only from players going all-out to screw each other over. The game Diplomacy is pure player vs. player politics, and I have heard more stories of people who won’t speak to each other after playing that game than in any other openly competitive game.

Decide What Politics Means For Your Game. In the end, you have to decide why politics are important.

For most mission-based or adventure-based games, all that matters is that there’s a guy that gives you orders or that you have to overthrow. In that case, prop up a king under whatever name you choose and point the players at him.

If you want a game where politics offers a flavor or spice to your game but isn’t the main thrust, consider a structure where power is divided between a few people or groups. You can define some groups as “bad” and others as “good” or paint them all with a uniform coat of gray, but in the end the players will likely side with one (or form their own faction). The act of picking and choosing a side feels political, but from there the game becomes a slightly more complicated version of “kill the bastard with the crown” again.

If you want a game where politics are the point of the game, you have to give that power to the players, and that power has to have teeth. There have to be reasons to work together as well as be at odds with each other. The right balance is where compromise is the only attractive option because it stops the fighting.

What political systems in games have you really enjoyed?

Mechanics and setting

motion gears -team forceMichael Cunliffe once said to me "I’d be very interested in a post about whether (or how to) use mechanics to suit setting in RPGs – how do you use dice rolls to provide not only dramatic, but thematic effect for players."

And I obey.

I’ve had an informal maxim in my head for years now as a game designer, and with every year that passes and every design I work on, I’m more and more certain it’s the right one. I’ve never really written it down before, but it goes something like this:

Mechanics drive player behavior.

On the surface, this sounds simple – a game about westerns should have rules about gunfights if it wants to have dramatic gunfights, and so on. But it goes deeper than that, I feel. Games feel different depending on what mechanics they use. This is more explicit with board games, card games, video games, and less flexible genres of game, but even the flavor and tenor of role-playing games are impacted by their choice of mechanics.

Take games of a similar genre, such as Boot Hill and Dust Devils.1 Both are Western games, but each is focusing on something different, whether the design is intended or not, and as a result you get different games. While there is a tried-and-true tradition of hacking or drifting rules in RPGs, what the game focuses on in terms of mechanics will consciously and subconsciously impact how the game is played. While some players can (and will) resist against the tide of mechanics, most will gladly be swept right along, and will indulge in the gameplay the mechanics present and reinforce. And a chunk of the feel and setting for an RPG is created by how the players act within it.

So yes, mechanics should help establish the setting in RPGs. But as a designer, how can you do that?

First, you have to know on a very real level what your setting needs to have enshrined in a mechanic. I believe every version of Dungeons & Dragons has alignment, even if the actual system has gone through various changes. The reason, though, is simple: the difference between "good" and "evil" matters in that game. Even if it doesn’t often come up in the game (and in my experience, it doesn’t come up much at all, aside from the odd "Detect Evil" spell), the fact that it exists and that there are parts of the game that work differently depending on that choice means that in D&D being good or evil is meaningful to the game, and therefore to the setting.

Next, you have to make sure those mechanics matter. Every version of Vampire has had Humanity as a mechanic. And not only a little mechanic, a small number tucked away on a character sheet, but a large ladder of dots. It generally takes up a fair amount of real-estate on a character sheet, and many fans of the game will remark on it being a core element of the game. The actual mechanic isn’t used that often compared to other parts of the game, but when it is, it’s often a significant moment. You can literally lose your character on a bad dice roll, so you’re encouraged to take actions that keep you from having to make that roll. If you make that mechanic matter to the player on a fundamental level, it will impact their game.

(As a side note, I once was in a chronicle of Dark Ages Vampire while I was also playing in a different campaign of D&D. There was a fair amount of overlap in some setting elements, such as "medieval hero uses unusual powers to deal with problems," but each game felt very different at their base because of the different emphasis in mechanics. Similarly, I’ve played an Exalted game under the same Storyteller who ran Dark Ages Vampire, and again they were very different feeling games because of the mechanics.)

Finally, the rest of the game needs to reinforce this mechanic. Paranoia is good at this. Although different editions emphasize different parts of the setting,2 the setting always reinforced and encourages the kind of player-against-player backstabbing and treachery that the rules encouraged. Everything about the game – even the name – backs up and supports this player dynamic.

This is why, I think, small games with a few mechanics and a strong direction are doing well these days – if you have a good vision for the game and everything else supports that vision, the game is stronger as a result.

  1. I just finished up working on Tales of the Far West and I’m rereading The Gunslinger, so yeah, I’m on a Western kick right now. Shut up.
  2. And, I feel, end up making the game feel different each time, something that Paranoia XP explicitly drew on

My projects outside of Vampire

I’ve been busy

While I’ve been hammering away at Vampire: The Masquerade — 20th Anniversary Edition, a few other things have fallen into place recently in my non-vampiric life.

Recently, Gareth Skarka announced that I’ve been signed up to work on his fiction anthology, Tales of the Far West. We’re still sorting out details, which I’ll share once I have them.

Further, I’m in the process of getting paperwork and signing documents with a publisher for another project of mine. I’m hoping I’ll have information relatively soon on that front.

I’m getting close to wrapping up the Tour de Holmes (which will get a proper title, I swear). After the last essay, I’ll compile and expand the essays into a full manuscript. At least two publishers have expressed interest in that as well, but worse comes to worse, I’ll probably self-publish it (possibly using a Kickstarter campaign to raise the starting capital for an editor and artist).

Finally, I’ve got a couple of RPG remix designs I’m kicking around. I may be able to get one into a state to be playtested stage in a few months.

Since I’ve got a lot of balls in the air, I decided to go ahead and create a page of all of the products I’ve worked on as a writer and/or designer1 and host it on this website. Right now, none of these funnel money back to me, but buying them would support companies that give me money (or have given me money in the past). I’ll try to keep it up to date as well.

  1. The list of books I’ve developed at this point would be massive and need updating once a month. That’s a lot.

What I Learned from Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney

ace_2For the past four months, I’ve been playing Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney on my iPhone, ever since Russell convinced me to check out its conversation and interrogation system. I haven’t finished (or really even started) the fifth “bonus” case, but I’ve played enough to babble about it for a bit.

If it looks like a game and acts like a game…. Let me be clear up front: I’m not entirely sure that Phoenix Wright is a game. As I played it, I discovered that it was part of a genre of visual novels, which I had previously been unaware of. Through the course of play, it’s pretty clear that it’s hard to deviate from the pre-existing storyline, and most of the choices aren’t really choices aren’t really choices at all.

And yet….

Continue reading What I Learned from Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney