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April 2012 Miscellany

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There Will Be Games

Thoughts about some game-related topics that are not long enough for separate blog posts.

Quotation:  "There's an old saying that I love about design, it's about Japanese gardening actually, that 'Your garden is not complete until there is nothing else that you can remove.'"  --Will Wright (SimCity, The Sims, Spore, etc.)

Is it more fun to be an expert, or to be in the process of becoming an expert, at playing a game?

I am scheduled to be a speaker at the East Coast Game Conference in Raleigh, NC, April 25 and 26, specific time to be determined.  (Topic: Much of Game Design Is Managing (and Causing) Frustration.  That may sound familiar to some readers . . .)

For those unfamiliar with video game conferences, they are very different from tabletop game conventions.  The major activity at the latter is game playing, and attendees are mostly consumers.  The major activity at a conference is dissemination of techniques for making and marketing video games, and this is done principally through talks and workshops.  Attendees are mostly video game professionals, and those who want to be (students).  And as with professional conferences in academic disciplines, they tend to have more expensive entry fees than game conventions, and tend to be on weekdays rather than weekends.  This one is Wednesday and Thursday.

Game designers:  How many times do you expect people to play your game?  My answer varies with the type of game.  If it's a sweep of history game, I think in terms of many, many plays, as I know people who've played Britannia 500 times, though I'm sure the average even amongst the game's fans is closer to 50 than 500.

If it's a "screwage" game, I think in terms of 10-25 times rather than 100 or 500.

But I never think in terms of, say, 5 times.  Yet it seems to me that the majority (a great majority) of games published nowadays are designed as though 5 plays is sufficient.

And I suppose it is, for a great many game players.  Variety (which often means playing lots of different games) is valued over depth (which involves learning more about, and getting better at, a particular game).

Of course, I usually get to see (and occasionally play) at least 30 plays of most games that I "finish".  But the game changes over time, so it isn't quite the same thing as playing the same game over and over.

And if a prototype doesn't hold my interest over five plays, I shelve it.

Game studies scholars like to use the term "Meaningful Play".  Whenever I see it I turn off, because to me it's terrifically vague and, well, unmeaningful.

Unfortunately, the structure of education in the USA means that anyone who is an actual practitioner of a discipline--for example, a game designer or a novelist--is discounted by academics, who emphasize degrees and reference to what other academics have said/written.  "Practitioner" is often a dirty word among people who have sailed through college to grad school to a terminal degree and then right into teaching.  Which helps explain why our educational system has less and less to do with the real world, as time passes.

"Games studies" is about culture, not about game design.  The scholars do not pretend to offer anything to help game designers.

On Facebook I've seen lots of graphics, "what <profession or vocation> really does" with six photos of how different people perceive the "profession".  For example, what hockey players do.  What home schoolers do.  I've not yet seen one for game players.

Designers of video games, especially video game interfaces, will benefit from reading Jakob Nielsen's posts about Web usability.  For example,
talks about smooth workflow and disruptive workflow.  Workflow is just as important in a game as in Web usage.

Comic books might be the midpoint between RPGs that resemble novels and those that resemble tentpole (fantasy) adventure movies like Indiana Jones.  Not that most comics make any attempt to be believable.

Someone wrote to me about a graphical exposition about instant gratification, and I discovered others as I looked around the Web site (which is generally about online graduate school).  Generations ARE different, and these graphics (which site their data sources) help illuminate this.  I've also added a report of a recent survey.
Instant gratification
Millennials and work
Meet the Millennial generation
Millennials Are More 'Generation Me' Than 'Generation We,' Study Finds

Anyone who designs interfaces or interaction for video games should read the following.
And marvel at how many interfaces fail to recognize such fundamental rules of behavior . . .

There's a tendency for people to think that a game is the sum of its mechanics.  To me a good game is more than the sum of its parts.  How those mechanics work with one another, and how they work with actual human players, makes a big difference in the outcome, and is much less than entirely predictable beforehand.

Most free-to-play video games rely on in-game purchases to speed  up progress in the game, to bypass certain tasks. Aren't games meant to be fun? Who watches good movies and wants to skip to the next scene so they're further into it, who skips pages in a book so they can boast how far along they are in it to their friends?  None of the people who are actually enjoying the experience, that's for sure.

I've been reading the GenCon event rules.  I was considering offering game design talks as I do at Origins, WBC, and PrezCon, with the added possibility of selling copies of my book, which may be available by that time.  (This is a common activity of authors of books of all kinds.)

But seminars at GenCon don't give the speaker any credit toward the entry fee.  Game sessions do because players are charged fees to play, and GenCon collects the fees.  Further, for all practical purposes, sales outside of the Exhibit Hall are prohibited.

My publisher exhibits at GenCon, so all is not lost.  But for now, I'll skip it.

Does practice make a difference in game playing?  Are you going to play better when you've been practicing the game, or once you've become a top player will it all come back to you immediately?

A friend of mine loves Robo-Rally.  He plays a lot, teaches other people to play a lot, and goes to PrezCon in Charlottesville every year to play in the tournament.  This year he played 23 games at PrezCon, and won the tournament.  I think practice does help.

Another game he's come to love is Merchant of Venus.  He's played once every two weeks in the past year.  But at PrezCon the game was played on the old board rather than the lovely custom-made set he uses.  Though there are few if any functional differences, he had a hard time seeing what was going on.  On the other hand, Merchant players came by as he played with his custom board, and remarked how hard a time they had seeing it.

So he was practicing, but on the wrong board, and maybe that's why he didn't make the finals in Merchant this year.

Certainly practice makes a big difference in games that are related to sports.  For example, the top video game competitors in games that require a lot of manual dexterity (FPS, RTS) practice 8-10 hours a day.  And we know how much professional athletes practice nowadays.

If you're going to make a game as complicated as a video game, then let it be a video game.  If you're going to make a game where people matter, then make it as simple as you can, so that the people vs. people can occur.

I see a lot of complicated tabletop games lately.  Some are complicated for atmospheric reasons, the story.  Some (the puzzles turned into contests) are complicated so that the puzzle is harder to solve.  The presence of other people is, to a greater or lesser extent, there only to help you keep score and provide variation (the way a computer would provide variation).

In most general terms, playing games used to be about earning something, and possibly failing; now they're about getting rewarded for participation, without the significant possibility of failure.  Especially video games.

For example:  at one time it was the referee's task in D&D to make the players fear for the lives and livelihoods (possessions, relationships) of their characters.  Now it seems to be the referee's task, in 4e D&D at any rate, to present a (usually harmless) tactical mess, then reward players for participation.

And in many other cases it's the referee's task to tell a story, not to threaten characters (unless that fits with the story).

Stages in a game are important.  They provide at least a perception, if not an actuality, of change/growth and learning.

More important, if there are no stages players may wonder why they're playing the game as long as they are.  Why not play half as long?

Game designers want to avoid the kind of thing some basketball "fans" talk about, they only watch the end of a game because they feel what goes before isn't important.  They don't recognize that there are stages and variations in basketball that are as interesting as the results.  They're only interested in the destination, not in the journey.  If you're only interested in the destination, why watch at all, just get the score after the game is over.

Stages help the feeling that there's more variety in the game, as well.

I've read that novelists don't enjoy reading novels as much as ordinary people, as they tend to think about how the novel is constructed while they're reading.  In fact they're particularly happy when a novel is so absorbing that they forget to think about how it was made.

I have the equivalent, "game designers' disease".  When I watch a game or play a game or talk with gamers I'm almost always thinking about how the game is put together or what the motivations of the players are.  I don't know that that reduces my enjoyment, since my favorite game is the game of designing games, but it certainly makes for a different point of view.

A tweet from a confused punter: @lewpuls This guy thinks he is Egon from Ghostbusters with his dig against books. "Print is dead", HA!

I guess that's from my last Miscellany when I talked about why someone might want to read a book.  But it would be really odd for someone whose book is about to be printed, to say "print is dead".   *Shakes head*

(Though you know, I've heard that Amazon now sells more non-print than print books.)

Strategy and Tactics

Strategic: plan well ahead.  That includes planning what additional forces you want/need to acquire.  Ultimately, everything that happens is of interest to you (Diplomacy, HotW, Brit).

Tactical: do the best you can with what you have RIGHT NOW (most games depicting a particular battle)

So Twilight Struggle is described as a very tactical game because it is so much an improvisers' game, it's very hard to plan ahead if I can believe what people write about the game.

There Will Be Games
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