Wednesday, December 7, 2011

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.


  1. Another good post, Ross!

    A couple of ideas that keeps popping up in my head as I've read your last two posts are the idea of defining the "Experience" of the game and its "creative intent."

    By "Experience" I don't mean character experience like XPs. I mean defining the experience you want the players to have when they play your games. This is one of the key topics addressed in Jesse Schell's "The Art of Game Design" and the accompanying "Deck of Lenses" (

    The game's "creative intent" is a similar idea, one I borrow from Imagineering (big surprise there, huh?) and it simply means "What the designer wants to accomplish" with the game.

    Both of these are very similar to your idea of concept, but each have nuances of their own that might be worth exploring.


  2. Good points all.

    I'm reminded of the frisson between the author's creative intent and the intent imputed by the reader, as discussed by Umberto Eco.

    What is the experience you want the player to have? The danger lies in over-scripting. You have to give the player the freedom to have his or her own experience, as well. They have to be able to do the things they want to do within the over-arching meta-game. For example, I really liked Blue Planet. I wanted to explore that world, just as, well, explorers would. I didn't want to get involved in corporate espionage or crime fighting. I wanted to find aborigines. Something they never supported. So I stopped being interested.

    The game's creative intent didn't fit the experience. It was a space exploration game that didn't have any exploration.