Thursday, March 23, 2006

Can you tell who designed that game?

A self-centered post about fingerprints... and wackiness.

In any kind of art, an artist develops a style. This is true of programming, painting, pro-skating, poetry, and many other words that don't even start with a "p". It also includes game design. Not just computer games, but real-world games as well.

I have a very distinct style. However, your style is typically only partly by choice, and the rest by necessity. My style is the same.

My games are typically fairly wacky, have end-of-the-world end conditions, and a rather silly power curve. This isn't because those are things I am aiming for, or even particularly like. It's because of the choices I make.

Most of my games are very big on letting the players make the decisions. This is more than half illusion, as I've mentioned earlier, but leaving the particulars to them insures that (A), I don't have to waste dozens of hours thinking this stuff up and (B), the stuff they invent will be exactly the sort of thing that pleases them.

However, this means that my games are always studies in controlled chaos. All of the grubby little paw-prints that people recognize as "Craig-game" marks are, in fact, resulting from this source, not a personal predisposition towards destroying the planet with mutant cabbages. (I prefer hampsters, personally.)

My games have to be wacky because serious games have serious players. And in a chaotic situation, things go wrong. And serious players crack when things go wrong in ways they do not approve of. They storm out of the room, angry. So it's easiest to gently push players into wackiness, and when things go wrong, it's more comedy than tragedy.

Similarly, the power curve is because I leave character progression up to the players. This results in players trying to grab as much power as possible, as fast as possible. The inevitable cracks in the rule set almost always allow people with more power to leverage that power to gain more power, faster.

I've learned a lot about players and game systems by letting the two interact pretty much unrestricted. But, in the process, a fingerprint is established that most people associate with me. And, of course, I've grown used to it, and they ask for it, so it's almost impossible to do something significantly different.

As you do things, you will also become known for having a particular style. Chances are, you probably already have one. A "fingerprint". No matter how you try to plan it, only one piece of your fingerprint will be under your control. The rest... will be indistinguishable from luck. You get stuck with what you get stuck with.

It's possible to change the piece you've chosen. I have friends who change genres, change game types, struggle to get out of what they consider to be a rut. But the rest of the fingerprint? The parts they didn't choose? Those remain the same. And they tell a hell of a lot about who you are.

I expect, as indie game dev grows, we'll be seeing a lot more clear fingerprints. I'm looking forward to it. They are fascinating to interpret.


kestrel404 said...

I mostly agree with you about fingerprints, although I think that a person CAN change more than one thing about the way they run games, it's just difficult.

As for your analysis of your own gaming style: No reason to blame the players for the power curve in your games. Yes, players grab whatever power is available to them, and that allows them to become powerful enough to grab more power. That's a side effect of your initial assumptions, and would happen with any set of players I can think of. In your systems. In just about every game you've ever run, the players are the biggest, baddest fish in the sea. They might not start out that way, but you give them infinite room to grow, don't limit that growth meaningfully - you might give XP, but generally there are items available that make XP useless, and in the one game where XP took these power items into account (the messed up Amber game), there was a way to circumvent the XP system entirely. And there are always more powerful items, more usefull gadgets, more interesting abilities. And they don't become exponentially harder to acquire...they become exponentially EASIER to acquire as power level increases. This is a good description of every one of the your games that I can remember.

Not saying this is a bad thing, I happen to like your games, because the outcomes are so zany. But it is something that you could change just by altering a few of the assumptions you go into the game with.

Which brings us back to the fingerprint idea. People run what they're good at running. You're the best GM I've ever seen for managing Chaos into something almost everyone enjoys. Heck, even Carolyn and Lucas enjoyed your Amber game, and they really don't care for chaotic games. But that doesn't limit the kinds of games you can long as you keep your personal habits in check. But that's the twist. Either you run what you're good at, exposing your fingerprint readily and getting 'labeled' as a certain kind of GM, or else you work REALLY hard at it and still end up as a rather average GM who can run anything, which is, in and of itself, a kind of fingerprint.

And now I'm just rambling. In the end, I guess I agree with you, but I'm not sure that's how you meant the fingerprint idea.

Craig Perko said...

I wasn't trying to blame the players. That is, in fact, the exact opposite of what I do. I was simply stating the reason why the games grew so powerful: open-ended advancement, which players take advantage of. It's the way of life, like saying that if you fill a room with toxic gas, people will choke to death. You don't blame the people for choking to death.

As for fingerprints, I think you are dramatically underestimating the power of a fingerprint. These things which you call "personal habits" are things which leak into any game you run, even if you try desperately to stop them.

I'm speaking as a very experienced GM, here. I've seen dozens of GMs, many of whom have tried to change their fingerprint. Like carving up your finger with a knife, it changes your fingerprint, but the print is still identifiable.