Sunday, December 14, 2008

Play and Story

I guess this is a rant. I doubt you've heard it before.

As time goes on and I build little demos and tabletop games, I find myself less and less interested in play. But in a really weird way. Lemme sup up.

I have noticed a huge difference in how I design tabletop vs how I design computer games. Here's an example of what I mean. I've designed several pseudo-star-wars games, both as computer game prototypes and as tabletop games (mostly RPGs).

When I design the computer game, I spend eons going over the play dynamics. "Well, how should light saber combat be? Just like so, using time-sensitive balance and yardeyaryaryar?"

When I design the tabletop game, I spend eons going over the, um, "narrative components". "Well, here, I've drawn a picture of the ambassador from Mrrhork, and his stats are on the back. He'll be useful because he's good friends with a rebel naval admiral and..."

Now, it's important to note that I'm not designing tabletops with common RPG mechanics. I'm not popping off to GURPS or d20 and pulling out some tired standard. I'm actually creating very new and strange mechanics for every tabletop game I make. But... but it's so easy. It takes maybe half an hour.

On the computer, it takes ten times that long just to duplicate freakin' pong, man. There's no time left for the story - I've spent all my time on trying to get the game to work in the first place!

The big factor at work here is that the interface for generating and executing rules for tabletop games is significantly simpler than computer games. IE, I write them down, then I remember how to do it. If it's vague or something I didn't expect crops up, I can modify them on the fly.

But! But!

But I hate using standard gameplay.

A big part of my dislike for the new Fallout game (which I thought was merely "quite good") was that they literally used the exact same system as for Oblivion. Even though the system wasn't very well suited to the Fallout theme. (I also disliked the world design, which was also inherited from Oblivion and had the same problem.)

Sure, they applied desperate patches and some varnish. (I'm SPECIAL. How cute.) But underneath it, we're looking at a recycled system. I can't stand that.

Its why I can't stand D&D or d20 or Gurps, either: these are systems that aren't designed specifically for the game the players are playing today. So I can't stand it. It feels like someone's trying to hammer a round peg into a Hulk-Hogan-shaped hole.

I want my gameplay to match the story (narrative elements, whatever). The game is a cohesive experience, and the idea that half of the game can be largely recycled from a completely unrelated experience is repugnant to me. So I quite literally cannot take a piece of gaming middleware such as Game Maker and make a game out of it. I hit a wall where I feel the grind between what dynamics the game needs to have and the dynamics that the middleware allows.

In some cases you can go digging, script up your specific gameplay system... but it takes just as long as making the damn thing from scratch!

It used to be that I'd make my little demos, focus on the gameplay aspects, and then drop them. But I'm having a really hard time doing that now, because I'm starting to really feel the missing half of the experience. It's like I'm arranging furniture in a house that has no roof or walls.

The horrible part is that this isn't a problem when designing tabletop games of any sort. Doesn't matter how hideously complex the game is. 200 page GM guide on time-traveling probability mathematicians? No problem, takes me a week. Board game with 500 illustrated cards? No problem, happy to spend the time.

But freakin' Tetris with a story, man? NO CAN DO.

Anyone else feel this way?


Erik Svedäng said...

Haha, true. When you sum up all the negative aspects of electronic games and the work involved it's incredible that someone even try to make them.

And in a few years they will be gone (or at least unplayed by most people).

Daniel Benmergui said...

I agree that today's platforms are still very far from providing an efficient and interesting development experience.

But even then, I'd ask you two questions:
1) What platform are you actually using to make the prototypes.
2) Did you ever make an honest attempt at doing *exactly* what you do on paper, on software? Even if it's not very enjoyable?

Craig Perko said...

Erik: I'd be curious to know why you think that, when everyone else thinks the exact opposite!

Daniel: I've used a variety of platforms, but right now I'm waffling between C# and AS3/Flex. They provide me with the more robust project management tools that are required by any project larger than match-three games. Other middleware (such as Torque or Game Maker) ends up hitting the complexity limit when I start modifying it/scripting in it to get very specific play styles.

2) Honest attempts at making tabletop RPGs in software?

How can you?

They rely implicitly - unbreakably - on the GM.

Sometimes I've built little fragments of them - this is the combat engine or whatever - but you can't build a whole game that way.

Even if you could, the experience would be completely different. Hmm.

Ellipsis said...

Over time, I've come to think that, at least for tabletop RPGs, the game mechanics don't matter very much. That is, it seems to me that tabletop RPGs are about the interaction of the GM and players, and a good GM can make any system fun, while a bad GM won't be able to make any system fun. This is largely because the systems are designed with open-ended aspects so that the players and GM can fill in the blanks with whatever they want to create the game experience they want. Some systems are even more explicit about this (Houses of the Blooded, where a knowledge check doesn't give the player a fact that the GM or rulebook came up with, but actually lets the player decide what the fact is that they know).

By contrast, the electronic game offers a world that adheres to a strict ruleset. Though the game is very limited in what rules it can handle and how well it can simulate reality, it can deliver perfect consistency to the player. So while the rulebook for a tabletop game is a useful tool for enabling a fun interaction, the rules in an electronic game are the game itself. My point is just that I think there's something valuable about that. It's not just that the computer game is harder to make, it's harder to make because it forces you to fill in the details explicitly, but what you get in the end is a complete system to play with.

Anyway, that's what I'm thinking.

Craig Perko said...

I agree to some extent, but disagree hugely at the same time.

If you're sticking to The Big Names, you're right: the game system is just there to be a go-between.

But in many game systems (such as Nobilis) the game system is a powerful organizing force that changes how the GM interacts with the players.

I think that's important.