Thursday, December 8, 2011

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.

1 comment:

  1. Been lurking for a bit, but enjoying the posts quite a bit.

    Hope this fills out your comment quota for the day. :D