Sunday, November 26, 2006

Swords and Smiles

Melee combat is very complex, but you wouldn't guess that from most RPGs. The melee combat has been abstracted into a simpler form where we use high-level commands to control the combat, and the low-level bits aren't even simulated. Of course, once you've abstracted something like that, it's easy to include fantastical elements like magic, and re-weight things so that various approaches are balanced in game when they aren't in real life. The abstraction simplifies a lot, so we add in a lot of stuff to prop up the play - plot, highly varied monsters, an equipment-buy cycle...

Social play is very complex... but is it more complex than melee combat? Is it more complex than torque and positioning and sharpness and how the body reacts to injury? I lean towards "no", but I'm interested to hear your thoughts. I understand that social play isn't a zero-sum game like melee combat, but...

Here are the questions I'd like to figure out how to answer:

1) Can social play be abstracted out into something very similar to the play in some existing genre? Not "can we replace swords with smiles?", but "can we use a turn-based dynamic like an RPG?"

2) With the advent of "deeper" interfaces (such as the Wii), melee combat (and other situational) simulations are likely to get less abstracted. Will this new wave of "realistic" models provide us with a better foundation for abstracting social play?

3) Does anyone care?

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Games you Never Thought of

Here's a few games you Never Thought of.

First: I finally managed to get a group to play Primetime Adventures, which has to be THE hardest game to sell people on. I finally got a group together - five players, two audience members, and me. Fourteen scenes later, we had finished a comedic romp through a steampunk space opera.

It works very well, even if you have no plot planned. Our "pilot episode" plot was made up on the fly, and it still ended up being an enjoyable game. I wonder whether I can get anyone to play a second time, though. It's so hard to sell.

Second: For the past few years, I've been creating games with lower and lower levels of immersion - testing the edges of what the minimum possible immersion is. It's been a very interesting romp, striding the edges where games fail. I don't think it's too egotistical to say that Boogaloo has proven most of my theories in application: a minimum-immersion game that people like to play.

It falters, but that's expected given the fact that the game has not a hint of immersion. I can, should, and almost certainly will write a paper about it.

However, what I'd like to do now is work on games with higher and higher levels of immersion. There are dozens of possibilities, but most of them have some severe drawbacks. So far, all my ideas have had the big drawback that they take at least half a day. I think that's inevitable: you can only immerse so fast.

Here, however, are two interesting ideas me and my roomie came up with. These games would avoid most of the drawbacks, but there are still some.

A game based on road trips. You get four to ten cars (and their drivers) and 2.5 times that number of players. You then set off on a day-long road trip. Each leg of the trip is an hour or so, with all the cars meeting in various locations. The idea of the game is that it's some kind of Cthulu-esque experience where the passengers are slowly being driven mad (ar-har-har): each car ride is functionally an hour of role-play based entirely around conversation and occasional in-game paper passing.

The players would need to figure out where they wanted to go in whose cars to solve whatever their goal was.

I could make this game a lot of fun, but the downside: about $100 in gasoline per car. Yeowch.

The other game is similar, but you simply ship everyone to a nearby big town (Boston, in my case) and instead of road trips, they take trips on the local subways and/or busses. You get some of the local businesses to go along with the game - a used book store, a little restaurant, a pub somewhere, someone to play a crazed homeless person - and you have everyone check back with "central" every hour or two. Some kind of "event" that happens that they don't want to miss.

It's the same basic kind of experience. The immersion should be comparable to the road trip, but would likely be more erratic. On the plus side, day passes for busses and/or subways typically run $5-$10, dramatically cheaper than the $30 players would need to pitch in for the road trip game.

Why these game ideas evade many of the problems with immersive games is an interesting topic, but kind of a long one, and I've taken enough of everyone's time today. Feel free to muse about it in the comments: I'd be interested to see everyone's take on immersion.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006


Okay, I keep reading "Lucid" as "Ludic". So, I'm taking tonight off. Soon: something shorter, and maybe a re-luciding of that five page thing I did a bit ago.

Tomorrow: Peanut butter sandwiches, far as the eye can see! My eye, at any rate, being severely nearsighted.

Actually, I'm about out of bread. So: peanut butter bagels, as far as the eye can see!

Monday, November 20, 2006

Darius Sucks!

I got to play the Wii a little bit, and I'll I can say for certain is that avatars that look like Darius really suck at boxing.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Idiot's Guide to GMing

Here's five pages of the Idiot's Guide to GMing, a book I'm not really writing. These five pages are a how-to on immersion. I hope you'll find them useful or, if not, tell me why not.

Talk to Strangers

(Google Documents has some irritating issues with non-HTML formats. Anyhow, looks best at about half window width. :P )

Friday, November 17, 2006

Wandering Too Far

The restrictions of language preclude relative unknowns from propagating advanced theory, therefore they must achieve a reputation for incisive comments about common theory first.

There, academic enough for ya?

Monday, November 13, 2006

Big Book o' Social Play

Here's a 25 page essay, if you're man enough to read it! Or woman enough! Or whatever. I suggest tackling it two pages at a time, with copious amounts of webcomics, caffiene, and wild beach parties between sessions. Invite me.

Anyhow, it explains my most recent theory in grotesque detail. There really is a lot of juicy, applicable stuff in there. At least, I think so.

Just keep in mind this is not exactly a polished document. Especially at the end, it kind of dwindles to random tips and notes. But it is full of juice! You will definitely learn some interesting game design tips, although I might be talking out of my buttocks. You'll never know unless you read it.

Big Book o' Social Play

Sunday, November 12, 2006


Games are interactive.

Most people think that means that the player does something and the game reacts. This isn't quite right: it's too narrow a definition.

Games have more in common with sports, work, and hanging out with friends than with movies, books, or spreadsheets. The first three are definitely, deeply interactive, whereas the last three are arguable.

See, a player doesn't have to interact with the game. Most games - and here I'm talking the whole scope of games, not just video games - most games are more about interacting with other players than with the game itself. Most games are simply structures that support an interesting way to govern interactions. They give players an excuse to be social together in specific ways, mixing up their normal social tendencies in a pleasant, structured, and relatively low-stress way.

A game's rules can be quite complex - roll the dice, choose three cards, if such and such then such and such. But in the end, the game's primary appeal usually boils down to the way it allows for interesting forms of socialization and its various cousins. This, of course, includes dominance play and so forth - not just simple socialization.

For example, poker isn't simply about percentages and potentials. It's about interpreting the body language and bids of the other players to determine how they fit into the percentages and potentials. It's about manipulating them into giving you the most cash.

Even the most unsocial games (like go or weiqi) are actually about socializing - about you reading your enemy's capabilities and aims, and seeking to counteract and accomplish.

Even single player games are about socializing!

Solitaire creates an imaginary second player: the deck. Using randomization, it attempts to simulate the actions and reactions of a human player. In Roulette, we use a bouncing ball.

Don't believe it?

Then why do so many gamblers think about the luck of the game as if it were human? Sure, they're not usually being serious when they think of "lady Luck", but they are being serious when they say that their luck has got to change, or that they are "hot".

We're hardwired to think of everything interactive as if it were at least marginally intelligent. Kids pretend (or flat-out believe) that stuffed animals are sentient. Adults treat their cars like they were people. We curse at the game when it gets too irritating, because that's what we'd do to a person who pulled this kind of stuff.

We're social animals.

We play social games.

The rules of your game aren't there to provide a specific level of challenge or whatever. The rules of your game are there to either provide a framework for people to socialize, or provide an imaginary person to socialize with. Someone who can be interesting and reliable.

As it turns out, providing a complex pattern to learn about and fun places to explore is an excellent way to provide enough of a social pattern to keep your players playing.

But when you think of every game as a dialogue, you'll be able to start telling what is "good" play and what is "bad". You'll be able to tell when play is "shallow", because you'll think to yourself, "our imaginary person is kind of getting off-topic." You can tell when play is "deep" because you can think to yourself, "wow, our imaginary person is insightful..."

And when it comes to connecting players to players?

That's a bit different. You're not creating an imaginary person: you're guiding real people.

Maybe I'll cover that some day.


Believe it or not, I really am working on a contiguous set of topics. All the recent posts about fundementals tie into this easily: the fundamentals are the "personality" of our imaginary person. The topics they like and the things they know most about.

Sorry it's so... scattered. I suppose I should write a book, but that's so tacky. Yah, because posting to your blog isn't tacky.

Anyhow, just some thoughts. Lemme know if you agree or not.

Candy Tests

I am a huge fan of playtesting. I playtest everything I build. Every game I make has a playtest phase before I even think about releasing it, and these playtests always catch issues that didn't occur to me. Every time.

Of course, there's two weaknesses to playtesting that you have to keep in mind at all times.

The first is that playtesters aren't (usually) testing the game for the length of time that your fans are actually going to play it. This means your more long-term play usually goes largely untested.

The second problem is that playtesters are subject to what I call the "Pepsi Challenge" fallacy.

The Pepsi Challenge was to determine which soft drink tasted better: Pepsi or Coke. Random testers nearly universally chose Pepsi. Why? Because Pepsi has a higher sugar content. It's a sweeter drink.

But it turns out that over the long run, Pepsi is less pleasing. Coke still wins out for the long-term drinkers, because it isn't too sweet.

What this means in terms of game playtesting is that testers will often choose whatever mode makes them feel stronger. However, a slope of challenge is what makes the game have staying power. So the testers will choose the variant that is actually worse for the long-term appeal of your game.

Basically, what you have to remember when using testers is pretty simple:

Watch them. Don't take what they say too straight: they aren't designers, they aren't testing the long-term play of the game, and they're heading for a Pepsi Challenge Fallacy.

What matters isn't what they say they prefer: it's what their play says. If they struggle to play, you need to polish that. But if they test two variants and have no trouble with either, the better variant is not necessarily the one they prefer.

Of course, some people are naturally immune to Pepsi. These people make great playtesters, but often don't represent your target audience very well. :)

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Deep Social Gameplay?

I explain why social gameplay is a hard problem, and some various ways people have tried to solve it. It's not long, and it's not written in acad-speak! It is kinda steeped in deep game design stuff, but other than that, it should be pretty accessable.

Tell me what you think.

Social Gameplay.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

A Personal Post

I generally don't make personal posts. Feel free to skip this one.

I have been told five times in twenty hours to vote.

Voting doesn't do anything. It makes you feel nice. It makes you happy. "I'm guiding my nation!"

I want the ocean to be yellow, therefore I should pee in it?

Voting is an emotional release. It has no actual mathematical merit, and the logic that convinces most people is not logic at all. It's an emotional appeal. In this case, an emotional appeal to vote for one freakjob or another, universally twisted by "public service" into horrifying monsters with painted smiles.

So, no, I'm not freaking voting. That's right, I will not change the outcome of the election.

Of course, me not voting has nothing to do with me not changing the outcome of the election.


I'm running a game of Kung Fu the Card Game the Role Playing Game Part Two: Electric Boogaloo. This link is mostly for myself, so I don't forget the file name.

But if you want to see what a typical Craig Card Game looks like, here it is.

Sorry, you can't play unless you're on WPI campus. It's a rather "in person" game. If you want to run it yourself, just mail me and I'll tell you about the GM's role.

Ugly hub link.

(It may be slightly opaque, since it's very much a "learn by playing" game... :P )

Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Summary

Okay, you can now officially ignore the last four essays. I was using very muddy terminology. Here's the new explanation:

Every game (and every other kind of art) is designed based on some fundamental bits. These are not the things the player gets to see or interact with, at least, not directly. These are the foundation for those things. These are the things which anchor play, anchor plot, anchor the art.

A lot of people play a game and like it or dislike it. Then they attempt to justify this like or dislike: "It has a great story!" "The gameplay is innovative and interesting!"

The thing is, a huge number of games have a great story, or great gameplay, or great art. But those games are never really mentioned. If a great story, or great gameplay, or great art were the real requirements, those games would be very popular.

You can argue that a game needs all three things combined to be very good. That's not entirely true, of course: some really fantastic games are missing one or even two of those things.

Justifications never work out very well. The real reason most people like or dislike a game (aside from hype and/or critical software issues) is dependent on the game having deep, cohesive, and fully utilized fundamentals.

Most genres come with some fundamentals. RPGs come with a few story fundamentals: save the world, gather a group of random people, explore the world. They also come with some play fundamentals and even some art fundamentals. Most RPGs simply use these fundamentals and produce an average product.

Some RPGs toss in some new fundamentals, creating a crazy-quilt of ideas that mesh poorly. Some people will like these RPGs for their innovation, but most people will find them unappealing.

The best RPGs put in new fundamentals that cut across the way the player experiences the entire game. These fundamentals allow the content of the game - rules, art, story - to unify and resonate. They allow the game to shine, because they create pearls and then shine lights on them.

These fundamentals don't have to be complex. For example, FFVI's two cross-cutting fundamentals were "emotion" and "lots of characters". Not exactly complex. At least, not on the surface. But these two fundamentals allow the rest of the game to be built beautifully.

Yay! I didn't define rule!

Outdated, go here.

Rule: a principle or regulation governing conduct, action, procedure, arrangement, etc.

Rule: the customary or normal circumstance, occurrence, manner, practice, quality, etc.

Rule: a prescribed mathematical method for performing a calculation or solving a problem.

Rule: the constellation Norma.

When most people say "rules", they seem to immediately think "laws". The two are different words for a reason: the word "rules" includes things that aren't laws, such as most of those listed above.

The first one is the important one. "A principle or regulation governing conduct, action, procedure, arrangement, etc."

That's what a rule is.

A rule set is a set of principles or regulations governing any and all of those things. Which is dramatically more than simply "gameplay".

Sorry if I was unclear. I wasn't trying to waffle: I didn't think everyone thought "rule = gameplay". I mean rule as it is actually defined. Obviously, we're talking about the constellation Norma.

A game might have a "time-travel driven plot". People don't think of this as a "rule" because it's implicit rather than explicit. But it is: implicit rules still exist. A time-travel schtick is a principle that regulates the procedure and arrangement of the game's plot (along with other facets of the game).

It is a rule. So is the standard "scrappy youths save the world" schtick. They provide you with various guidelines - principles - which shape your design.

Things that aren't a rule are things like the dialogue you actually write, the characters you design, the specific cities you create, the specific subplots... these are things which result FROM the rules. They are also the things that most people think make a game good.

Why RPGs Suck

Outdated, go here.

Sure, not all RPGs suck. But everyone seems to think that the most important factor for an RPG is it's "plot" or "story". This simply isn't true. Or, rather, it's only true tangentally.

I've recently been on a big thing about how rule sets are the most important thing in a game. So, if you're clever, you might already realize that I'm about to use RPGs as an example.

The most popular RPGs do not have any better stories than generic RPGs which make barely a splash.

For example, Chrono Trigger is undeniably one of the top ten RPGs of all time. Star Ocean II is not. Even though they had the same target audience, the same basic save-the-world plot, the same kinds of characters.

You could argue any number of other factors. Advertising, writing, character design, gameplay... but you'd be arguing wrong. Advertising (or inertia) certainly matters: the Final Fantasy series attests to that. However, I don't think anyone will argue that advertising actually makes a game better. The rest of the arguments? No.

Perhaps you're unconvinced.

Chrono Trigger's gameplay wasn't exactly innovative - it was barely even interesting. Star Ocean II actually had more interesting gameplay. Many non-fantastic RPGs that have no lasting appeal actually have innovative gameplay. 7th Saga, Persona, Parasite Eve, many others. Excellent writing, design, gameplay... these games often have a few people who continue to be fans long after the games are old. You probably are thinking, "Yeah, hey, that was a great game!" But you'd really have to stretch to consider them "top" RPGs, and you probably haven't remembered them in years.

The one thing you probably wouldn't think of comparing is rule sets. By which I mean the overall rule set of the game itself, not just the rules of the game play.

Chrono Trigger has time travel. It has a rule set that uses time travel. In addition to the solid writing and the nearly-two-dimensional characters, CT's time travel schtick allows it to give the player a level of emotional investment in the world and its characters that few other games can match. Also, it gives it some cool plot twists that flow neatly - totally unforced.

Final Fantasy VI (or III, whatever) uses a rule set that allows for many, many different characters. This allows you to build a story that spans dozens of view points and dozens of lives, and also allows you to let the player ignore the characters he doesn't much like.

Most of the really popular RPGs aren't great because of their writing or their plots. Those things are important, but dozens of RPGs that vanish without a ripple have writing just as good and plots just as good.

The really popular RPGs are great because they have a rule set that gives them the ability to produce better metacontent.

The rules drive the content. Generic rules give you generic content. This is why so many RPGs just aren't interesting to anyone other than RPG-heads. They build off solid gameplay rules, but their meta rules are given no thought, and turn out generic and patchwork.

Think meta. :)

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Content is King

Outdated, go here.

Recently, my posts have said "the rule set is the only thing that matters".

It's really a misleading statement, of course. It's kind of like saying "phsyics is the only thing that matters". Sure, everything relies on physics, but things like food and air and Wii are the things that everyone cares about. The fact that physics makes these possible is a pretty remote connection to most people.

Games are the same way. The pretty graphics, the hopefully-interesting storyline, the cool weapons, the level design, the actual play of the game... it's what players live and breathe. But all of that stuff either arises from or is brought to light by the rule set of your game.

You have a villain named Murmur. She's a kickass design with some great lines and some fun superpowers. Plus, she looks really hot in what little she's wearing.

Of course, if you've designed her without thinking about the game rules, much of your design is wasted. For example, if the game is a real-time-strategy, she's going to be about thirty pixels tall and her delicate outfit won't have any more punch than a generic bikini. On the other hand, hair that is bright pink is fine in such a scale because it sets her apart, but if she were portrayed larger, it would just be loud and ugly. (Why the heck does a villain named "Murmur" have pink hair?)

Her fun superpowers must be adapted depending on whether it's an RPG or an FPS, and that's going to be an ugly process. Even her lines will be portrayed differently depending on the game - a game with no facial animations or really tiny faces (like, say, Deus Ex) will leave every line flat, totally changing the way you have to write. Is it recorded over audio or simple text? That also changes the way you write.

The parts of Murmur and all the other things that impact the player rely on the rule set. The overall rules of the entire game, not just the tiny piece you associate with gameplay. With a different rule set, the same character has a dramatically different feel. The same event is a totally different experience. Even the same art gives an entirely different impression.

Content is king, sure. Without content, nobody cares to play. But what content gets crowned is up to the rule set.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Rule Sets Again...

Outdated, go here.

Last post I got a good comment. I'm going to try to defend myself. First, I need to say that I specified "rule sets" rather than "gameplay" for a reason:

"Gameplay" has a bad connotation. "Gameplay" means "sitting in front of the TV twiddling your controller" or "rolling dice". A rule set can give you that kind of game play, but it doesn't have to. With that in mind, we'll continue:

"Name pretty much any good Japanese RPG, and you'll find a boring, repetitive mess of gameplay which wouldn't be fun for five minutes if it didn't have a good story justifying its existence. It's gameplay is only worth anything in that it allows the story to be there."

That's patently not true. You may not like that style of gameplay (not knowing you, I can't say either way), but the fact remains that the gameplay is extremely dense. It lets you micromanage statistics and weigh variables and buy efficiently... this is especially true in JRPGs, where there is the added gameplay of synergizing your party.

The reason people like to rag on JRPG play is because it hasn't really changed in the past decade. That's doesn't mean it's bad or shallow. Actually, it means the opposite. It means it's deep enough to still appeal ten years after it plateaued.

"I've already mentioned Mario Party, which I have had a lot of fun with. But if you look only at the gameplay itself, it's not exactly impressive. A bunch of shallow minigames, separated by a primitive board game in which you spend a quarter of the time hitting dice blocks and the other three quarters watching other players hit dice blocks. The gameplay is good because it allows you to arrange a fun party around it. The gameplay, without the social context, is worthless."

Ahhhh, this is a really good counter-example, because it covers what I was going to post on next.

Social gameplay is still gameplay, and is definitely caused and fostered by the rule set. The way the game is designed in tiny, silly chunks is ideal for making people enjoy themselves en masse.

I've designed lots of games like that. It's not that they have "poor" gameplay or "shallow" gameplay, it's that their rule set is designed to make most of the gameplay meta, or more accurately, tangentally meta.

"The majority of Riven (and in my opinion, the part of the game most worth playing) is walking and looking. Deep."

Gonna hit that at the end of the essay.

"I'm not saying these are bad play mechanics- they're good because they serve the more important stuff well. What that important part is depends on what the game is trying to achieve: it could be story, or socializing, or world design. But the play mechanics in these cases are not the most important parts of the game."

I think you're shortchanging play mechanics. You seem to be saying that play mechanics cannot be based around story, socializing, or world design. That would be an unfortunate shock, since literally all my play mechanics are based around those. It's extremely rare that my gameplay is actually about playing the game itself.

But that doesn't change the fact that the rule set is what enables that kind of fun in that kind of way. Simply saying "it's the socializing that's fun" is ignoring the fact that the socializing is caused by the rule set.

"In fact, you could have a good time without any gameplay at all. The story of an RPG could be detached from its gameplay and still be enjoyable; socializing can certainly be fun without minigames; Myst's worlds could be appreciate in some sort of real-world 3D model."

Ah, but they wouldn't have the same appeal. There are no popular RPGs whose story/characters/pacing would make a movie that would still be popular five years from now. Socializing without the minigames doesn't have the same stability or reliable enjoyment (hence drinking games). Riven wouldn't be enjoyable to wander around because it wouldn't be couched in "solve to proceed".

The rule set for all of these games - and every other game - manipulates how the character moves through the game. It makes the character stop and look at the coolest parts of Riven. It makes the party revolve at a fun and moderated rate. It gives the RPG plots and characters their value by associating them with gameplay changes and time expenditure. All of these things grow out of the rule set.

I hope this expains my position: rule sets are the primary factor in a game.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

What Makes a Game Good?

Outdated, go here.

I've run scads of live games. RPGs, LARPs, card games. While I can't claim they were all good, they have almost all been popular.

I spend a considerable amount of time trying to figure out why person A loves the game but person B dislikes it. And I think I now know. I'm going to tell you in as short a post as I can, as an apology for the extremely long posts earlier in the week.

The thing that makes a game good is the underlying rule set.

Everything else is fluff.

"Blah blah blah, heard it."

No, please understand: everything else is meaningless.

I run games with the weakest, least-defined plots, the most irritating overhead, the most infuriating lack of GM guidance. Yet they are unfailingly popular and a majority of the players enjoy them. They go to astounding lengths to work around the nearly infinite weaknesses in the actual GAME...

Because I provide the rule set. And the rule set provides the gameplay.

If the gameplay is deep enough to keep the players interested, they will invent something to do. They will make a plot. They will ignore irritations and gleefully tackle self-motivation.

Your job is to provide a killer rule set.

Everything else is fluff.