Tuesday, October 16, 2012

What the What?

For those of you not in the know, I've spent the last six weeks busily developing my first game product in ten years. It's amazing, actually, how quickly I fell back into the routine. It's almost as amazing as how fast I started slamming my head into the keyboard. I couldn't believe what I was reading, and the answers I was getting back from writers when I asked the question "what the what?"

Now, I don't want to name names and out the game system for which I'm developing, though it has something to do with finding paths. One of the first things I received was a packet of material that had already been written before I even signed on as line editor. I read all this stuff about economics and history and politics. It was a completely realized fantasy setting rooted in reality. Let me break that last sentence down for you: It was a fantasy world struggling mightily to be grounded in reality. Does that not strike you as fundamentally wrong somehow?

Let's put it a different way. When you watched Lord of the Rings, did you ask yourself "how did Sauron build that giant tower thing?" or "Geez, how does he feed everyone in that thing?" Of course not. You just accepted that Sauron has a giant tower that should topple over since it doesn't have any steel girders in there holding it up. Okay, movies are a visual medium, and while you're enjoying the movie you're not really evaluating it critically (that's why you go see it with friends, so you can tear it apart after the movie). While you were reading the novels, you totally asked yourself how Rivendell traded with the local communities surrounding it, right? Of course you didn't. Because you don't really care about that stuff.

As I'm reading this material, I kept waiting to get to the game. So I called up a few of the writers and asked them "is this really what the market wants?" I was told, in no uncertain terms, that fans of this particular game expect an insane amount of detail. One of these writers was kind enough to forward me some of the products for this game. Needless to say, I was floored.

I was reading monster descriptions that detailed their societies and mating habits. Yes, you read that right. Someone thought it was vital to know how the monster screws. This is critical information? And we're not talking just a few lines about how it lays its eggs in offal or something; I mean it talks all about mating rituals and mating seasons and how the monster likes it if you bring it flowers first. I can't imagine an adventure where this is somehow important. Let's just get this out of the way: If you interrupt a monster while it's getting its freak on, it's gonna be mad. And most creatures are highly protective of their young. Back in the day, all I needed to know was how to kill the monster, how it was going to try to kill me, and what stuff I could steal from it after I was done murderizing it.

Similarly, I read encounters with an insane amount of useless detail. I realize that a large portion of the game involves moving miniatures around a board, and that knowing where the tables and chairs are could be tactically important. But do I need to know the light source for every room? I need to know the bar is ten feet into the room, and five feet from the back door? It's like the writer had a specific image in his head about the tactical situation, and dammit, you were going to play it his way. Once again, back in the day, we had room descriptions, too. But if someone needed to know how the room was lit, and the module didn't tell me -- guess what? -- I made it up. Most of the information I was reading would actually never come up in normal play. If they didn't mention how the room was lit and how many tankards were on the bar, no one would miss it.

So, what's going on? Three things. First, writers get paid by the word. The more words they write, the more money they get paid. Once upon a time, a writer sent in an insane amount of verbiage, and it got published. Then, other writers sent in huge documents, and they got published, too. Soon, writers and readers came to expect an insane amount of detail because that's what they were seeing in the finished product. This triggers the second reason: Developers can be lazy. I'm guilty of it, too. Someone sends me 5,000 words, and if I cut out 2,000 of them as really useless then I have a smaller product; I have to work harder fill that hole; and I have a deadline to meet. It's more expedient to just print the 5,000 words about tentamort screwing and be done with it.

The third reason for insane amounts of needless detail: The market has come to expect it. Some people have come to read games as a form of entertainment; they don't really intend to play the game (well, maybe some day), they just want to read it. If you can't explain how the economics between Rivendell and Bree work, then your game must suck. Now, on a certain level, I'll agree with that. But then tie it to actual game play. Stick in an adventure hook or three. Write a mini-quest involving Rivendell/Bree trade. I call this making the product "chunky." Don't tell me in boring detail about economics, history, and sociology; I don't want to read a textbook about a fantasy world. I want to play a game.

If you like highly realized game settings and complicated tactics, hey that's great. I can churn that stuff out like no one's business. As I've eased myself back into the business, however, I'm just stunned at the crazy amount of detail people have come to expect.

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