Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Simplicity's Sake

Hmmm. According to my stats, I've lost three followers in the past few days. Guys, what did you think this site was about? What have I not been doing that you wanted me to do? Don't come crying to me when you miss out on all the perks of my quest for global domination. But I guess I should get back to practical game design...

I'm reading the Steve Jobs biography lately. It's the giant white book with the big picture of Steve Jobs on the cover, so you can't miss it. One of the things that obsessed Jobs was simplicity. It was one of the three guiding principles in the original foundational document for Apple. Simple is better. Jobs didn't like software that required too many clicks. He didn't like on-off switches; that's why iPhones have only one button to power up, and the slider bar at the bottom of the screen to unlock the phone. The whole process of using the device had to be intuitive and simple to understand.

Remember that. Simple is better.

But simplicity isn't easy to design. In fact, Apple made hundreds of foam models of the iPhone. Simplicity takes a lot of work. It's a process of stripping away all the non-essential elements from the design. We should do the same thing.

Back in the day, there was a game called Middle Earth Role Playing (MERP). This game had a super-detailed combat system. There was a massive chart for fumbles. And one for critical hits. And hit location. I tried this game exactly once, when I was in high school. A simple fight with four orcs took all night. There was no roleplaying. We never played the game again.

I've never played Aftermath, but I hear that the combat system was a nightmare as well. Trajectory. Hit location. Ammo types.

There are all kinds of places to put complexity. Character creation. Combat. Skill systems. And there are some people who like their games super-complex and "realistic." Hey, that's cool. But I think that a game is better served by simplicity.

The reader should be able to understand the game quickly. The concept should be easy to understand (who do you play, what do you do?). The mechanics should be both consistent and quickly understood. How do I hit a monster in D&D? You roll 1d20, add any bonuses, subtract any penalties, and beat a target number. Simple. Elegant.

Back in the day, the game took speed factor into account. This was supposed to measure the relative speed of the weapon based on it's size and mass. No one I know ever used this rule. Similarly, in 1st edition AD&D, no one used psionics because the system was unwieldy and worked completely different from the rest of the rules. Designers chucked these rules for simplicity's sake.

John Wick (Hi, John!) recently complained about the exisence of falling damage rules in RPGs, and he's exactly right (up to a point). If you have to pull out a Texas Instruments graphic calculator to figure something out, you've bogged down play, and likely confused the gamer. You've pulled them out of the experience, whether that's the roleplaying experience or the game playing experience (those things aren't the same). I don't agree with him, however, that those rules aren't necessary at all. The wizard's fireball blasts me off the top of the ruins, but the spell wasn't enough to kill me; how much damage do I take? The rules are necessary. But they should be simple and elegant.

If you're going to include complexity (called "crunchiness" among gamers), then make sure you understand why you're including it. And still try to avoid making the rules too complex. Even if your market really, really wants to drill down to the nitty gritty of hacking, as a certain point you're only going to be catering to five guys. Even they don't want to be pulled out of the experience of playing the game.

One example from my own experience comes from the Coda System. We had a debate in the office about whether or not to include a saving throw mechanic. This, for those of you not in the know, is a general "save yourself from danger" roll, for jumping out of the way of falling boulders or surviving the bite of a poisonous snake. These things don't come up often in a game, and they could easily be handled as some kind of attribute test. In fact, that's the approach some argued for. It was simple.

I argued the opposite, that it needed just a bit of complexity. Saving throws are a "second tier" attribute. They give you something else to modify through the rules. "Gain +2 to your saving throw, in X situation." Or you could improve saving throws separately through leveling. In other words, if you tied the saving throw directly to an attribute, that statistic would only change if you changed the attribute somehow. Even better if your saving throw were somehow tied to your attributes, so a person with low constitution would have a lower saving throw. I ended up winning the debate. Yes, I added a touch of crunchiness to the rules, but they remained simple and elegant.

As I said, this can take a lot of work. You have to do a lot of design work. Maybe because you have to write a rule several times in order find it's best expression, or strip it down to its salient feature. Maybe because one rule doesn't fit with the rest of the rules. It's a matter of taste and intuition.

Remember, however, that simple is best.

Cat Pee Stores

Why do we, the designer, care about the retail experience? Well, where do you think the gamer is going to buy your game? Moreover, the retail store is your point of contact with the consumer, your audience. Do they like crunchy games? Story games? Do they prefer the falling damage rules in Terminus V vs. Vampire? Hanging out in game stores is a good idea, to learn about your audience. But, to me, the most important aspect of the game store is as retail establishment.

Right now, you're thinking "hunh?!" 

Let's wind back a bit with a bit of background. If you talk to any game manufacturer, the subject turns pretty quickly to retailers. Despite my glowing praise of Zombie Planet, I'm sorry to say the majority of game stores are the exact opposite. Peter Adkinson (Hi, Peter!) calls these "cat pee stores." This is because the store smells like cat pee from the store cat. These retail establishments are run like gamer clubhouses, typically for the owner and his friends. They just want the discount they get from Alliance. So, they're not operated like real businesses. Some of the experiences I had:

The game store owner who opened up his shipment from the distributor and then left it on a floor by the door. If you were looking for a new release, you picked through the box. "Hi, I'm looking for the new GURPS supplement." "It's in the box..."

The owner who wouldn't walk away from his computer to ring up a sale, because he was playing an MMO.

I went into a store one time looking for a GURPS supplement (Black Ops, if you must know), because I was out of town and needed a copy. No GURPS to be found. "Where do you keep the GURPS?" I asked. Oh, we hate that game, so we don't carry it. Uh, what?!

There was a store in Scranton that claimed to be a game store, but it only really carried Games Workshop and some Magic. But they made sure to have three couches, two warboards, and a soda machine. It was really a clubhouse where they could wargame, and the Magic sales paid the bills.

This one is my favorite story. I went into a retailer, looking for my own stuff. I needed to buy a present for someone on the run, and wanted to give them some of my own work. Again, no Star Trek RPG on the shelves, so I asked. Stupid me. "Oh, LUG is out of business." Uh, what?! "LUG went out of business, so we can't get their stuff anymore." Dude, I work for LUG. I assure you we're not out of business. "Well, they haven't come out with supplement X (I forget what it was), and we heard they were out of business." Buddy, I work for LUG. Here's my card. "Well, then where's supplement X?!" What do you care, you don't even stock the goddamned game...?!

I haven't even gotten into what collectibility has done to the business. See, game stores are actually book stores selling very specialized books. For decades, they were run on the book store sales model; you buy some books and put them on the shelves. If a book sells in a week, great. If it sells in a month, great. If it sells in a year, great. You still make your profit. And you never know when someone will walk in looking for a particular book. Obviously, if the book sells faster, it's easier to make rent. But if you have enough books, the chances are you'll sell something on any given day. Magic: the Gathering destroyed this model.

Now, game stores work on a collectibles model. You buy ten cases of Magic, you sell ten cases of Magic (often in two days), instant profit. Then, you can go back to playing the Knights of the Old Republic MMO. Minimum input, maximum output. You don't have to do anything that smacks of work. The kids come in looking for the latest Magic expansion, and your money isn't tied up in inventory.

But since he can't credibly call himself a "game store" with just a computer, cat, and piles of Magic cards in his store, he orders some RPGs. Typically, this is a huge amount of D&D (though nowadays, it more likely Pathfinder), some White Wolf books, and a bunch of "little games" he's heard about. Of those "little games," the average order is the core book, and the three most recent supplements. That's it. Want something older? You're S.O.L. And once those sell, there's a good chance you'll never see the game again in your local cat piss store ("Uh, it's out of print, and I heard the company was out of business."). Unless you're Pathfinder, D&D, and Vampire. That is, if they bother using their Magic profits to support RPGs....

Thus, manufacturers have had to move to .pdfs and print-on-demand (POD) and make their games available direct to gamers. This has not only pissed off the retailers (then do your jobs, guys), it has affected quality of product. This is what we're concerned about as designers. This is why games are poorly laid out, have crappy art, and have no editing. You have to pay these people. I know, it's a cruel world. But if you're only charging $5 for a .pdf, you don't have the money to pay a graphic designer, artists, and editors. Your game suffers. Not only because you can't get the game into the customer's hands through retail, but because it affects your bottom line.

Zombie Planet

Some of you may be wondering what Zombie Planet is like. It's only the best game store I've ever been in. One of the reasons I'm so stoked to be here is that I have a plethora of games at my fingertips. So expect a lot of game design advice over the next two days....

I was here at the beginning, when George opened Zombie Planet. George wanted to open the store in order to have contact with the end user. Eden Studios, for whom I used to edit, would be run out of the back of the store. In fact, I named the store. George wondered what he should call the place, and I said "too bad you can't call it Android's Dungeon, like from The Simpsons." But, I realized, we could do a name like that; so I came up with a table listing all the fantasy nouns in one column, and all the sci-fi nouns in another column (You could roll on it.) Dragon's Battlestar. Alien Dungeon. You get the idea. George picked Zombie Planet.

All day long, I could hear gamers commenting on games. You can't buy this kind of feedback. Someone didn't like this game because it was too crunchy. Someone loved the same game for the same reason. Games either rocked or were "ass", for all kinds of interesting, and sometimes stupid, reasons. Many times, I would stop work, get up, and ring up a customer's sale. So I worked for Zombie Planet and Eden. It was an education.

I come up here as often as I can, for the experience (and the employee's discount). I usually take over a table in the front of the store, and make it my desk. (In fact, George is unpacking the comics shipment next to me right now). Everyone knows that when I'm in town, this is my area. I hold court here, chatting with friends and laughing entirely too much. I pile up my intended purchases, but I also comb through the shelves and pile up RPGs for research. Zombie Planet is very much like my own, personal game library. George knows I'll restock the shelves. I'll also help customers when they come in, because I like having that personal contact with the end user. I also hit on the cute gamer girls.

I cannot adequately describe to you the impact of walking into this store. But I'll try. I wish I could take pictures and upload them, but I'm having trouble uploading pics right now... The first thing you notice when you walk into ZP is the profusion of stuff. It's overwhelming. Behind the cash register is the wall of TCGs. In front of the cash register is the display case of card games. This just goes on and on and on.... For a good ten feet. To your right as you enter is an island covered in the latest board games and graphic novels. In the front of the store is an alcove of miniatures (paints from three different companies, hobby tools, cases). The miniatures then wrap around the rest of the right hand side of the store. I count four different miniature companies on the racks... It's just stunning. It's like you've been smacked in the face with a dead fish, the riot of color.

No matter where you look, there's something. The board game section, which is the size of my living room, is in the back of the store, is stacked with board games from floor-to-ceiling. Need an RPG? The RPG section has everything. I walk around the store, just picking up stuff up until my arms are full. Do I really need the Battleship Galaxies game? No. But damn, it looks so cool, I've got to have it. Most of my shopping experience is piling things up on a table, then going through everything to make a final decision. (Do I want this or that? Do I want that more than the other?) I haven't even gotten to the nick-nacks scatttered all about; the mugs and novels and t-shirts and action figures. And there's a second floor for comics and organized game play. And this is where we come to the salient point of this article.

George's store is so successful because he stocks everything. He stocks things you don't even know you want until you see it. George realizes that this is a book store. He tries to have at least one of everything on hand. When he sells something, he reorders it, often that same day. If you like Flames of War, you know that George will have that obscure tank miniature that no one else stocks. That's why you come here. If it doesn't sell for six months, he doesn't care. Some day, he will sell it. If he needs shelf space, he'll phase things out (by selling it on eBay, or putting it on sale in the store).

Even though the store is filled to bursting, everything is organized. There's a section for every category. Moreover, he spotlights things, like new releases. Right now, I'm looking at the Zombie Outbreak game, Ghosts of Albion, a new Palladium book, Battletech, Shadowrun and Dark Heresy new releases. They're in the center of the floor, where you can see them as you walk in. Certain books are placed face out; this is important because even thought it takes up more shelf space, it easier for the consumer to see. So Savage Worlds is faced out. Pathfinders and DC Adventures -- faced out.

George devotes much of his second floor to organized game play. This takes up significant floor space. However, when he holds events (tonight is the Hulk Heroclix release), he also sees significant sales. Because the gamer just got ass kicked in the Magic tournament, and he wants more cards. Or the D&D guys see that there's a new release. Or the Warhammer kid decides that he's finally going to get into 40K... George supports the community, and the community ends up supporting him. He's ready for the impulse buy.

Right now, for example, George has stopped unpacking comics and gone to his computer. So he can check the gaming boards and see what's hot. Are people suddenly talking about the new Savage Worlds release? George thinks "Do I need to stock more?" His staff is well-informed. Not just about the games they like to play, but about many games. In fact, his staff plays many different kinds of games. George might bust out a copy of the Game of Thrones board game, because he wants to play it, and they'll spend a night giving it a try. This way, when a customer asks about it, the staff can provide informed opinions.

George also insists on the little things. All his employees say "Hello, can I help you find anything today?" when someone comes in the store. When you check out, you get asked if you're a preferred member. And, you get directed to the on-line store to print out the latest store coupon for your next visit. George spends money on promotional bags, because his customers appreciate having big shopping bags for their large purchases.... He takes the customer's needs and desires into account.

So, what makes Zombie Planet so great? Inventory. Organization. Diversification. Sales techniques. Customer service.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I see a gamer girl that needs my help...

Conversations in the Car

Here it is, the first day of my vacation. I haven't taken a vacation in about a year-and-a-half, and what do I do? I come up to hang out in a game store. In Albany. In the middle of December. I have the money to afford a trip to Cabo, even Aruba, but I wanted to spend time with George and my buddies up here in Albany. In a game store. In December. Oddly, my last vacation was in a July... in Albany... hanging out in a game store. I may not be right in the head...

Yesterday, I spent a good four hours driving up here with George Vasilakos. Now, the thing you may not know about game designers and industry professionals is that when you put two of us together, we end up talking about the hobby games industry. (When you put three of us together, you get a game! No, actually, you get three game designers bitching about the business, but there's a 43% chance of more alcohol.) People like to talk about what interests them, so I imagine it's the same for professional football players and podiatrists; they talk about football and feet.

The topics were far-ranging: Kickstarter (we talked a lot about Kickstarter), POD, printing, .pdfs, falling damage, sales and fulfillment, deck-building games (really?! A game about building your deck?), and catching up on the business gossip. Because almost as much as gaming professionals like their booze and strippers, we like to gossip. See, there's a secret history to the hobby games industry, one that we don't let you civilians know about. Trust me, that's a good thing. We talked over recent events, much of which I was unaware. Who moved to where, and why; who left where, and why; who should have gone bankrupt, but didn't, and why. So I have a lot of stuff swirling around in my head.

If you're hoping for juicy gossip, however, it ain't gonna happen. One of the things that game designers never do, or at least should know better than to do, is say unkind things about other games (or other people). At least in public. Because one day, the shoe will be on the other foot, and the tables turned, and other metaphors...

Okay, okay. One quick story. George was telling me about a new game called Zombie Outbreak. Now, you may not know it, but George publishes a little game called All Flesh Must Be Eaten. Apparently, when he went to their booth at a convention, and asked "why should I buy your game instead of AFMBE?" the answer was "because they're out of business." To which George replied: "Gee, that's strange, because their booth is only three aisles over..." Okay, so they were asshats. George doesn't hold a grudge, and he's a gracious man, and he stocks the game in his store. Face out. In the new games section right in the front of the store.

But then things move on-line, at, of all places, RPG.net. Big surprise. So the gamers are debating zombie games on the discussion boards, and the question comes up again: Why should we play this new zombie game rather than AFMBE? Someone posts "because there are rules for playing yourself..."

Uh, what?! Can't you do that with any RPG?

"No," says George. "Apparently, there are RULES for playing yourself."

Now, we don't know what that means. Will someone come to your house and beat the shit out of you if you give yourself more strength and charisma? Do you really want to play some pasty-faced fat guy with poor social skills during a zombie outbreak? Didn't you watch Zombieland?

So, for the rest of the trip, whenever we started talking about a game, my first question was "but are there RULES for playing yourself?!" When I got to Zombie Planet, I picked up some random RPG, and George would say "Dude, you don't want to play that. It doesn't have RULES for playing yourself..."

Because we're idiots, and that kind of humor appeals to us.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Personal Log

Here I am, visiting Albany, NY, where my long-time friend, George Vasilakos lives. George is the Zombie Khan of Eden Studios, publishers of some game you may have heard of, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and All Flesh Must Be Eaten. I'm up here to do some shopping, since he also owns arguably the best game store on the East Coast -- Zombie Planet (I actually helped him name it long ago....). There may be some gaming going on, and some brain-picking, and some strippers. Because George knows how I like to roll.

I was originally going to write about my impressions about Zombie Planet (the best game store on the East Coast), because I think it has a value to game designers. But then, George handed me a book entitled "Designers & Dragons", which is a history of the roleplaying game industry. It took me 2.5 seconds to flip to the Last Unicorn Games chapter.

I must say, the author got her information right. It's odd reading about the history of the company for which I was a principle player. I was there. I remember what went on. I had largely tried to put it out of my mind, mostly because of the daily beatings. What's odd about this experience is that I was in it up to my neck. I lived it. For me, it isn't "history" so much as my memories of daily life. I knew what was going on in the office, but to see it in a book, described dispassionately, is a bit... odd.

For example: "Cashflow issues were made worse by the fact that the Dune RPG was sitting around unprinted due to legal wrangling over the Herbert Licence." This is true. Brian Herbert wasn't sure he wanted to approve the game, while we were pointing out that we had a legal right to publish it. He was, at the time, just starting his series of collaborative Dune novels and was a bit pre-occupied, too. That tidbit of information isn't in the book. So it's strange to read about something that occupied my days (I could hear the conversations on the phone between LUG and Herbert, and had many conversations about it with Owen Seyler), settled in a single sentence.

What I really found unusual was this sentence: "... new employee Ross Isaacs -- who had done a scattering of freelance work for AEG and Chaosium before doing more extensive work for Holistic Designs -- did the initial work on the 'Icon' system."

Wow. Where do I begin? First, I hadn't done a "scattering" of freelance work. I'd done a lot. Bronze Grimoire. Serpent Moon. Honor's Veil. I provided material advice for L5R's magic rules (so much so that they named a card in the TCG after me). I did do extensive work for Holistic, because they gave me the work. So I'm not pleased by the implication that I was some second-string banana who just fell out of the tree. I'd made a name for myself in this industry before going to LUG.

Second, I was there the first day we started to design Icon. It was me, Christian, and Owen sitting in Christian's dining room and hashing out what the system should look like. But it's a more complex process than the text of the book would have you understand. Kenneth Hite and Steve Long contributed tons of input. So did Matt Colville. So did Andrew Greenberg and Bill Bridges. I find it odd that so much of one's life, and complicated goings-on, could be summed up in so short and simple a sentence.

So while I like the book and my entry in it, there's sort of this weird disconnect between things I remember and the way they're recounted. I feel like Han Solo must have, while listening to C3PO tell the Ewoks their story.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Story Based Vs. Tools Based

Many of you are likely annoyed that I post four or five times a day, two days a week. There's a simple explanation for that: I'm off from work. I'm going to attempt to use Blogger's scheduling system to post this one tomorrow. Let's see if the chimpanzee can make the internetz thing work...

For a brief period, I worked for Wizards of the Coast. It was a very cool place to work, but also deeply frustrating. Cool, because there was "game Thursday" and all kinds of free swag; and the Aeron chair. Frustrating, because it was a corporation, with reports and corporate-speak. "We have to maximize cross-promotional opportunities across the matrix..." Ugh. But one of the things that made my time with WotC valuable is what I learned about game design there.

One of the things was the difference between story-based games and tools-based games. The latter is better than the former. I think the best examples of both come from my own work, Star Trek.

The first Star Trek game I designed, the Icon System, was more story-based. That is to say, many of the mechanics affected the story. For example, ranks were simply the privilege of calling yourself "captain" or "admiral". Many of the advantages were loosely defined. Like Bold. You gained a bonus when you acted boldly. What they hell did that mean? We left it largely up to the GM and players. In other words, many of the mechanics didn't have a concrete, rules-based effect.

The second Star Trek game, Coda, was tools-based. Everything had an effect on the die-rolling mechanic. In fact, Don Mappin, one of our designers, complained that we'd "drilled down too much." Every element had a measurable effect. Bold now gave you a +2 to your roll. Buying a rank gave you a precise effect (which I don't remember because I haven't looked at that game in years).

I say that the second approach is better because: 1) It provides a concrete benefit. With the story-based approach, your benefit may never come into play; you might forget about it, or your gamemaster might be averse to using it. It leaves less in the hands of the player, by which I mean less up to the whims of players as to how the rule is used. 2) It gives the players tools, things they can use. You take the Bold advantage not because your character is bold (well, you do), but because you want that +2 bonus (and it fits your character concept). You might have taken Curious instead, but that provided a different +2 bonus...

I must admit, as if you couldn't tell, I prefer tools-based mechanics. That's a new design principle, by the way, because we're going to start getting into designing mechanics. We know what our game is going to be about, and what players will do, so now we've got to design rules.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Sample Idea

I have to say, I'm really proud of myself for that OWS RPG idea. I think I may make that the central example for my blog. Let's start designing. First, a little bit of background.

A lot of my friends on Facebook have been railing against the bill, attached to a military spending authorization, that allows the U.S. military to arrest and detail, for unlimited time, anyone in America suspected of terrorist activity. I hate this bill like I hate Twilight - deeply; it offends my sensibilities. It also violates all kinds of laws and traditions that make us the United States of America. It's also great fodder for a game.

Ignore the fact that we already have the apparatus for arresting domestic terrorists (it's called the FBI). Let's say the bill is signed into law. How do you define "terrorists?" Obviously, we know about the Taliban. But what if someone were to define the Sierra Club as terrorists? What if someone decided the Tea Party were a hot-bed of terrorism? It's a slippery slope. Because it's in the nature of organizations to redefine things to suit their purposes.

Marry this idea to the central complaint of the OWS movement. The government is bought and paid for by the corporations. As is the media. In fact, our representative democracy is really an insider's game of oligarch practicing crony capitalism. The cops are beating and pepper-spraying anyone who protests the current system, at the behest of their corporate masters. Right now, in the real world, this is a shady, invisible influence; we assume it's going on, but it's not like we have proof the CEO of GE is calling up the chief of police in Detroit and telling him to crack some heads. But imagine if he had access to the army....

So we've got a dystopic world run by corporations. I don't mean like in your typical cyberpunk novel. I mean up front and in your face. Congressmen have corporate sponsors. The President is bought and paid for. The little guy, us, we don't really matter any more. We're allowed to vote, to keep up appearances, but everyone knows it's a sham; your political choice is either Coke or Pepsi. You don't get to vote for Canada Dry. It's America, Inc. It's a corporate empire.

Except for a brave band of freedom fighters (that'd be the player characters). They remember a time, fondly, when people had freedom of speech and association. When they had a say in things. When they weren't treated as serfs. And they're determined to fight...

I think to further muddy the waters, I'm going to make this an island nation, like the one from the NBC series Kings. It was loosely based on the story of King David, but what I liked about it was the modern militaristic feel of the setting. I'm also going to shamelessly rip off the video game Mirror's Edge, the parkour video game. So it's an ultra-modern island nation ruled by an oppressive military-industrial complex, and everybody knows it. Kind of like Singapore. Only with chewing gum.

What do you play? A freedom fighter opposing the Powers That Be. What do you do?

* Break into corporate headquarters to steal vital information.
* Sabotage the Network TV broadcast tower.
* Smuggle political prisoners out of the country.
* Assassinate corporate officials.
* Blow up important locations.

Basically, you do anything you can to upset the established order. You're part of the insurgency.

Right now, however, I'm not entirely happy with this. There's more that can be done. It still needs that aura of paranoia (safe houses, double agents, midnight police raids). It also needs more to do -- what if you don't want to play a freedom fighter? Can you play criminals smuggling guns? Can you play the government? What else can you do with this game?

But What Do You Do?!

According to my statistics, I have over 3,000 page views for Dangerous Games. I figure that approximately 2,000 of those are me, checking to see if anyone's commented anywhere... What can I say, I'm a Cancer, and I'm needy. I think it's time that we investigate the other side of the concept equation, and talk about the "what do you do?" in your game.

After all, the game has to be about something. And by "something" I don't mean existential angst or fighting The Man, or some other overly-broad meta-theme. What you're supposed to be doing in the game has to be clearly defined.

One of my friends, Chrystal Andros (Hi, Chrystal!), has been complaining to me about her current campaign. The Gamemaster hasn't clearly defined what it is the group is supposed to be doing. So they bumble around, trying to figure out what their characters are supposed to be doing. This is frustrating, for obvious reasons. It's bad enough that her GM hasn't focused his campaign, but it's even worse when the game itself doesn't clearly define what you're supposed to be doing.

When we designed the Star Trek RPG, I insisted on a list of "Things To Do" for each of the shows. You explore new worlds in The Original Series. You negotiate a peace treaty between two warring planets in TNG. You smuggle disruptors in DS9. You try not to kill yourself because you're stuck on ship for the next 70 years with Captain Janeway in Voyager.... Even though a lot of the stuff on those lists were interchangable -- you could negotiate a treaty in a TOS game, too -- it was important to me that we convey a sense of the kinds of things you could do with the game. It wasn't just that DS9 games were different from TOS games, but that there were concrete things to do.

Let's say that your game is about fighting The Man. Let's call it the OWS RPG. (Hey, I can be topical.) It's all about corporate oppression and greed, and crony capitalism, and a dysfunctional political system. Clearly, you play the protesters, because people want to play the hero. There's a bongo skill, and a saving throw vs. pepper spray... But what do you do in this game? What does "fighting The Man" mean? You have to define it practically, in terms of adventures. You protest foreclosures. You march on banks. You occupy city hall. Of course, because this is an RPG, you take this further (or is it "farther"?). You fantasy it up. You make it like a dystopic cyberpunk future. You basically rip off that 1984 Macintosh computer advert. (Originally, I wrote practical adventure ideas, but I deleted them. I don't need the cops showing up at my door. Seriously.)

Sometimes, this can come back to bite you, especially if you script the central conflict too tightly. I began to see this with White Wolf products. The Ventrue didn't like the Brujah, so every time you got two players playing their respective characters in the group, you got four hours of bickering. It got worse in another game, which I won't mention by name. But you could play a vampire, a Templar, a were-cat and you were fighting... something. And since every character type had a reason not to get along with every other character type, which I guess was supposed introduce conflict, I had a hard time figuring out what players were supposed to do (besides bicker with each other). Keep the central conflict out of the character classes. Give players reasons to work together. And give them concrete things to do.

You've got to keep the players (including the GM) focused. But that does not mean railroading them into your story line. As has been pointed out, Deadlands had a fairly scripted setting. But I could ignore that. I could, if I wanted to right now, play a Deadlands game that had nothing to do with that game's central story. I could play Red Dead Redemption with it, or Butch and Sundance, or Unforgiven, or Pale Rider... I could ignore what I wanted and play what I wanted to.

The idea is to provide many different things to do with your game, but not so many as to become meaningless. And not be so restrictive that the players feel railroaded into playing The One True Way. It's their game. Give them enough information to stimulate their imaginations, then get the hell out of the way.

What Makes A Good Game

First, I see I've picked up two new suckers... er, I mean fans here at the Dangerous Games website. Welcome. Soon, through the power of the internet, and the mind control rays, you will be sending me money. Lots and lots of money. Then, I'll use that to finance my hedge fund, which is also a Ponzi scheme, and retire to the Cayman Islands after faking my death. And my mother says I have no ambition....

On to the question of the game concept. As I review my previous rantings, I see I've left out a key component of the "Who do you play, and what do you do?" platitude. And that key is the group. See, games are played by groups of people. You can play an RPG with just two people, but when I've done it, it's felt deeply weird.

So the thesis statement for this article is: A good game is one which involves a group of characters, of relatively equal power. (And this last point is key, too.)

One of the things WotC did right before they acquired LUG (which, by the way, is a story unto itself) was conduct market research. This was the first time this had ever been done, since no other game company had the kind of money to conduct market research before. TSR did, back in the day, but they apparently spent it on hookers and blow. Anyway, they discovered that games that supported group play were more successful than those that did not.

This seems like an obvious truism, but you'd be surprised how many game designers forget it. What do I mean?

The James Bond RPG was very cool. You may not remember it. It was the only game put out by Victory Games (a division of Avalon Hill). The art was amazing; they just screamed BOND! The game completely captured the tropes and elements of the James Bond series. The rules were tight. I think this was the first game to come up with car chase mechanics, and seduction rules. I loved this game way more than Top Secret (which suffered from the same flaw I'm about to reveal). But there is only one Bond. You never saw a movie or read a book where 007 got together with 006 and 005 to battle SMERSH. So one person played the double-0, and everyone else played... someone else. This meant fighting over who got to play the double-0, and who got to play the chick he was banging.

The Doctor Who RPG was similarly cool. It was produced by FASA (Hi, Lou!), and it also captured the spirit and tropes of that property. Who didn't want to grab a sonic screwdriver and fight Daleks? That was the problem. Everyone wanted to play a Time Lord; no one wanted to play the companion. The Doctor got all the cool stuff. And you never, ever saw two Time Lords on a mission together.

Dungeons & Dragons, on the other hand, supports group play very well. It took, as it's role model, Lord of the Rings. You've got four Hobbits, and Elf, a Dwarf, two Humans, and a Wizard running around on a quest. They go into dungeons (Khazad Dum) and fight massive battles (Helm's Deep); they go adventuring, as a group. So it's not a stretch to imagine a Cleric, Fighter, Thief, and Wizard going off on quests together.

Even if you're not basing your concept on an existing property or genre, you've got to consider the question of group play. Does your game adequately support a group of people doing things together?

(I would even argue that even if you're not basing your game on something else, you are basing it on something else. Every fantasy game, to some extent, is copying or emulating Lord of the Rings. Every superhero game is emulating X-men. Every cyberpunk game is emulating Snow Crash or Count Zero... It's on the designer's mind. I think the Armageddon RPG by Eden Studios fails because it's not really based on an existing milieu, for example. But that's a side issue.)

You know what would make a great RPG? G.I. Joe. You could play Hawk, Snake Eyes, and whomever fighting the latest machinations of Cobra. Another one would be Transformers. Again, a group of characters working together to adventure. I remember after WotC spent all that money acquiring Last Unicorn, wiring our offices with a T1 connection, and buying us all Aeron chairs, they Powers That Be decided that they weren't going to licence any more games, but were instead going to concentrate on their own properties. I've ranted about this before. It's deeply weird to me that WotC hasn't produced RPGs for some of Hasbro's best properties. Want another suggestion? How about a Power Rangers RPG?

Remember when I said relative power levels were key to this concept? Go ahead, scroll up. I'll wait. What really made playing Bond or Dr. Who so difficult was that one player was uber-powerful and the rest weren't. After all, Bond is Bond. He's the star of the show. He's been trained in all kinds of things -- he can fly a plane, defuse a nuke, shoot a gun, seduce the hot Russian girl spy... So he's built using 300 points, and to make him seem Bond-like everyone else is built on 150 points. Not fun. In Dungeons & Dragons, you rarely see someone who's 10th level adventuring with 2nd level characters. There's a reason for that. Everyone wants to have a relatively equal chance to accomplish stuff.

So, in sum, when you're coming up with your game concept, you have to think "is this a game that supports a group of players?" If it's not, if it's really only one main character surrounded by a bunch of lesser peons, then that game isn't going to succeed.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Gaming: Why I Left

When my non-gamer friends find out what I used to do, I get asked two questions. The first is usually "How do I become a game designer?" Answer: Sell your soul. But the second question is often "Why'd you leave?" The impression out there, even among gamers who aren't in the industry, is that game design is hella cool. Tell me that when it's 1am, your press deadline is the next day, and you're proofing blue lines until you can't see straight. Or when your boss is standing over you and saying "Write faster! Why can't you write faster?! You don't need to eat lunch...."

Despite all that. It is a very cool job. There were the networked Starcraft parties late into the night. And sitting around debating whether to use the word "sapient" or "sentient." Going to see the X-men movie as an office outing. There are things to recommend a career in game design.... There's the joy of seeing your name in print, or having someone ask you for an autograph. I even had a stalker for awhile. Too bad he was a fat guy dressed as Supergirl. Anyway.

I was working for Decipher as a line developer. People ask me what that is, and I think it's a misused term in our business. A line developer is a managing editor. He or she is in charge of the product line. He comes up with the schedule, outlines the books, hires the writers, reviews their work, then completely writes the game by himself. There's also art direction (telling the artists what you want to see) and proofing blue lines. (When you send something to the printer, they send you back your book printed in blue ink. This is so you won't mistake it for a printed book, and so they can clearly see whatever changes you write in the margins. It's also so you can develop myopia later in life.)

I was deeply unhappy in my job. I had spent the better part of two years writing 5,000 words a day. ("Write faster, dammit!") I was also recently divorced, and the dating scene in LA was pathetically sad. Hint: Women in LA are only interested in you if you can help their acting career; dressing up as Wonder Woman doesn't count. So I thought I'd move back to New York. I made arrangements to become an out-of-house writer. We had Steve Long and Kenneth Hite on staff as telecommuting writers, and I figured I could do that, too. I guaranteed them 5,000 words a day, which would be clean (meaning they could go right to press with them, without much editing). Decipher agreed, and I moved to New York. Jesse Heinig was hired as line developer. I wrote parts of the Alien book from here, in fact.

Then, I got a call from Decipher thanking me for my service. Uh, what? Jesse was the line developer, and I'd helped them through the transition, so it was time for us to part ways. No, they didn't need a telecommuting writer. What did I mean we had an agreement? I maintain I was fired. They maintain I quit. I maintain the people at Decipher are douchebags. And since the company is functionally out of business, I think I'm right.

So, why didn't I just go to work for someone else? It was a little thing called D20 and the Open Gaming License. This was designed as a system-killer. Ryan Dancey at Wizards of the Coast admitted as much. Why would someone design their own rules, when they could use the D20 system and gain more potential sales? Everyone who plays D&D would buy your game! You'd make tons of money! It was a great idea, except it destroyed creativity. Which was what WotC wanted.

There used to be all kinds of great games out there. Deadlands, Fading Suns, Little Fears, Blue Planet... Those companies that did D20 versions of their games soon died on the vine. I know people will argue this with me, but from where I sit, D20 killed off Holistic and Pinnacle. They put out D20 versions of their games, and were soon out of business.

The problem was that people forgot that the rules informed how the game played. If you were playing Fading Suns D20, you were essentially playing D&D. If you played Deadlands D20, you were playing D&D. It was like that future from Demolition Man, where every restaurant in the future is Taco Bell. You can eat out, but you'd better like Chalupas, because that's all you're getting... Every game felt like every other game out there, which is to say they all felt (and played) like D&D.

At the time I was looking for game design work, the only thing people were interested in was creating D20 games. I didn't want to do that. I wanted to create vibrant, interesting games. Games that were maybe a bit wacky or unique. No one wanted that. They wanted to hop on the D20 money train. And that train led right off a cliff.... There was a glut of D20 product out there. You all cannibalized each other's sales. The consumer couldn't distinguish AEG's setting from Joe's Homebrew Campaign; there was literally too much product on the shelf to look at.

So I left. I walked away. I saw no point in creating content for Hasbro toys, essentially free of charge to them. I suppose I could have gone to White Wolf (hey, I'd dress up like a goth for enough cash) or some other independent-minded company (Chaosium would have been nice...). But at this point, I was disgusted by the entire hobby games industry.

And that's how I ended up doing what I'm doing. I was going for an uplifting close, but I really don't have one. I've been out of the business for ten years now. I still cling to certain design principles, which I'm glad to share here. But my design days are behind me.

A Study In Cool: Deadlands

Colin, my Laotian houseboy, just called to say that dinner would be late because he was busy pruning my prize-winning azaleas. I told him I'd beat him for his impudence later. But enough of my domestic employee troubles. Now, I have time to add another blog entry. I see that I've already solicited a comment in my original post. I cannot stress to you enough that I will only continue to write these articles so long as I get feedback. Because it's all about my ego. I'm a game designer, after all.

I mentioned Deadlands in my previous post, and I think this game makes a perfect example of what I'm talking about.

First, back to my assertion that Deadlands' concept isn't zombies + cowboys. That was the shorthand a lot of us in the game design industry used to describe the game, and it was really grossly unfair. It was much more than that. The genius behind Shane Hensley was that he viewed Dungeons & Dragons through the prism of the Wild West. There were fighters, clerics, and wizards, but they were viewed through the Wild West filter. There were spells and monsters and magic items, but they were Western spells, monsters, and magic items. I think he basically asked himself "what does Mystara look like in the 1860s?" Indeed, I wish that had been the game, since I don't like alternate history (the South lost the Civil War, get over it).

Mechanics: Deadlands uses dice, because every game has to use dice. But it also uses a deck of playing cards and poker chips. Because the fundamental trope of Westerns is the poker game. When you sit around the table playing the game, you feel like you're in a Western. This may seem obvious in hindsight, but if the game had just included dice, it wouldn't be Deadlands.

Graphic Design: The artwork, the covers, the trade dress, all screamed "Deadlands!" You knew exactly what game you were playing when you picked up a book. Whenever I go into a game store, I can see those obnoxious yellow-orange covers from across the room. Who didn't love that picture of the Hanging Judge?

Concept: Here's the secret to this game's success. Many game designers craft a story for their setting. At a certain point, this makes sense, because there has to be a central conflict. But this concept has to be overly broad. In Deadlands, you can fight the Reckoners, or the Indians, or protect the trainload of ghost rock from bandits.... You can either see this as there being a lot of conflicts from which to choose, or there being no read central story line. This is Deadlands' beauty; you can do what you want with it. It's not tightly scripted. This is a mistake that some game designers make. They don't want you to play your game, they want you to play in their story.

So, Deadlands succeeds because it adheres ruthlessly to it's central concept. Fantasy Wild West. It's in the mechanics. It's in the art and trade dress. It's in the setting. It's a great example of stellar design work.

Concept Into Function

Okay. Moving on. Those of you who pay attention to this stuff will know that I always start my entries with a humorous introduction. For those of you who aren't obessed with structure, I always start my entries with a humorous introduction. Right now, I'm sitting in a Starbucks, for the free WiFi (not the coffee, belive me), and I'm combatting the relentless onslaught of holiday music by listening to Depeche Mode. (Which, as Kenneth Hite points out, is perfect writing music. I don't know why, but he's right). Anyway, I'm seriously considering an iPhone game where you hunt down the guy who programs the music selection at Starbucks. Who do you play? An angry consumer. What do you do? Kill the guy who makes you listen to Sarah McLachlan 15 times an hour.... See how easy this stuff is?

As I said before in my previous entry, your concept will inform everything you do. It tells you what mechanics should be in there. It tells you what your cover should look like. It tells you how the promotional text on the back cover should read. Your concept must inform every aspect of the game.

What is the key feature of Call of Cthulhu? The sanity rules. You can't have that game with out sanity rules, because the key feature of Lovecraft's work is that the horrible truths of the universe will drive you insane. Hell, most of his stories end with "and he saw the Elder Horror, realized the utter futility of man, and went insane. The End." The central concept of the game dictated the game's design.

Dark Sun was my all-time favorite D&D setting. What was it about? The use of magic was actually destroying the world, turning it into a desert. So that game had to include rules for magic sucking the life out of surrounding nature. If it didn't, then it wouldn't be Dark Sun. Plus, it had feral halflings, and who doesn't love midgets with sharpened teeth boiling out of the desert to eat your liver...?

Vampire has rules for rottshrek (I know I'm not spelling that right), for when a vampire is faced with something he cannot deal with, like fire or sunlight or a big bag of hemoglobin. Now, I've never seen anyone use these rules, because goths don't want their vampires being deeply uncool and flipping out. They want to pose with fangs and top hats. But the rules still had to be in the game, because according to vampire lore, when a vampire is confronted with fire, he flips out.

The game must serve the concept.

Now I'm going to tell you a tale out of school (as it were). When we were working on the Star Trek RPG at Last Unicorn Games, we all wanted to produce an original game setting. Danny Landers suggested "zombie pirates" as the central concept. At this time, a little game called Deadlands had come out, and it was deeply cool. I don't know anyone in the game design community that didn't love that game. We all clamored for Deadlands swag at conventions. The concept for that game was "zombie cowboys" (though, really, it wasn't). The idea of zombie + "something" concept swirled around the industry for awhile, so we decided to design a zombie pirate game. (We even had a mascot for the project, Ghouly Pete.)

At the time, Christian Moore (President and CEO of LUG) was close friends with John Zinser (President and CEO of Alderac Entertainment Group, makers of Legend of the Five Rings). Christian mentioned our zombie pirates concept to John, who realized a fundamental truth: Whoever gets there first wins the game. In other words, if we came out with a zombie pirates game first, then no one else could. So Zinser used that information to motivate his designers to create their own zombie pirates game. If I remember correctly, he'd go into AEG's offices and announce that we were "thisclose" to finishing our game, and they'd better get cracking. They came out with their game in record time. This was to become 7th Sea.

We were pretty bummed when 7th Sea came out. Because first, we now couldn't publish our own zombie pirate game. And second, I don't know what it was, but 7th Sea wasn't a zombie pirates game. It was Scarlet Pimpernel and Errol Flynn and Three Musketeers and a bunch of other stuff. Let me be impolitic (game designers never criticise another company or game) and say that since that game didn't feature a zombie pirate on the cover it was a critical failure.

It didn't look like a zombie pirates game. It didn't read like a zombie pirates game. So it wasn't a zombie pirates game. It's a great game. Don't get me wrong. Even though I never read it, because it wasn't a goddamned zombie pirates game. But I'm sure it's great because it was written by John Wick (whom I deeply love after my time working for AEG).

So that concept you came up with after my last post (and you came up with one, didn't you?) will tell you what needs to be in the game, and what should be left out. Anything that doesn't service this central concept is superfluous.

Your Game Design: The Concept

I stopped maintaining this blog last May, primarily because I didn't think anyone was reading it. Doing something alone, while fun, is technically called "masterbation", so I didn't see the point of continually writing stuff that no one was reading. Because I have important things to do, like play Gears of War 3 and manage my alpaca farm. But then, something strange happened; a bunch of friends mentioned on Facebook that they wanted to read my thoughts on game design. Who knew? Apparently, I was once a noted and award-winning game designer. I'd forgotten.

So I'm going to start uploading articles on game design. Or, at least, my opinions on game design. I suspect a bunch of my real game designer friends will hop on here to tell me I'm full of it. Or maybe even be helpful, and discuss advances of which I am unaware. Today, our subject is: Concept.

I meet people all the time who want to design their own game. They apparently think it's all champagne and caviar and sitting around having fun. Well, it is that, but it's also a lot of work. And a lot of that work involves maths. But I'm getting ahead of myself. The most important decision you will make as a game designer is the concept, the thing the game will be about. This will inform every other decision you make in your design, from game-play to graphic design. It will also keep you focused on your design.

I can't tell you the number of designers who screw this up. You see them at GenCon all the time (at least, I used to when I went to GenCon). They're well-meaning and earnest, clutching their game in their hands, wanting you to read it. But they can't tell you what their game is about. Andrew Greenberg, formerly of White Wolf and Holistic Game Design (Hi, Andrew! You owe me a bottle of Jack...), taught me this. It's probably one of the most valuable lessons I learned. We would walk around the exhibition hall and stop by booths that interested us. Often, this involved hot girls (booth babes in game design terms) standing outside. "Tell us about your game," Andrew would ask.

If they couldn't tell us in two sentences what the game was about, we judged it a critical failure. What do you play, and what does your character do? Those are the only two questions that must be answered. What am I playing, and what am I doing? That's it.

Vampire: the Masquerade: You play a vampire engaged in a secret political war.
Legend of the Five Rings: You play a samurai fighting for your lord.
Call of Cthulhu: You play an investigator investigating the horrors of the Elder Gods.
All Flesh Must Be Eaten: You play average people trying to survive the zombie apocalypse.

But you'd get these people who not only couldn't answer these two basic questions, but also hadn't really considered them in the first place. I wish I could remember some of the pitches we'd heard, for illustrative purposes, but I can't.

Worse were the games (and settings) that were merely the designer's fixes to the supposed flaws in other games. We'd get this all the time. "It's like Vampire, but cooler." Uh, gee, thanks. But I can just play Vampire. If your game has to reference another game in order to sell, then we don't really need your game. We've got the original. I don't understand, for example, why Palladium put out their own zombie game. We have one. It's called All Flesh Must Be Eaten. If you have to say "it's AFMBE, but better" then you've basically admitted to creative bankruptcy. I can just play AFMBE.

"In my game, the elves come from the sea, and they're blue." (I actually coined the term "Blue Elf Game" after I'd heard this one.) Dude, I can play D&D and make the elves in my world blue, too. I don't need you. A lot of people in the Aisle of Misfit Games seem to think that whatever their favorite game is is somehow critically flawed, and is in need of "fixing." So you get someone who's basically done Shadowrun, but with hyper-realistic ballistic rules. So unless you also have this particular bug up your ass (the need for hyper-realistic rules for guns), you're not going to be interested in this game.

It's a shame that someone would spend their hard-earned money to publish a game (and believe me, this is expensive) that failed this most basic of tests. Who do you play, and what do you do? It's really that simple.