Friday, August 28, 2009

Having a Point

I just finished Arkham Asylum. No spoilers, don't worry.

The thing about the game is that it got me thinking about themed games, and how the gameplay doesn't usually match the theme. For example, Arkham Asylum was a Metroid game.

But it got me thinking. If you were free to make a Batman game, no rules, no regulations, no DC dictating to you, what would you make?

I think the Arkham idea is a good one. You put it in Arkham and not only do you have a limitless supply of supervillains and freaks, you also have a chance to make your game about madness. Every story needs a point or it wallows in itself. Like Arkham Asylum does.

My first move, in making my imaginary Arkham game, would be to ditch the bat. You don't play Batman.

You play the supervillains.

I'm a big fan of replayability and deep, wide gameplay, so I would probably make it an open world (well, open-asylum) game. But there is no centralized leader. You can choose any supervillain, and play through the game in only a loosely scripted manner.

This gives us three points of strong gameplay. One is the specific gameplay of the character - and how their madness affects it. For example, Mr. Freeze and Harley Quinn would play very differently in terms of how they move, attack, and so forth. But more importantly, their psychology affects the way they can interact with the world.

Quinn's silly, childish insanities lend themselves to a kind of Tank Girl feel, tainted by her obsession with the Joker. She would be better able to interact with both supervillains and random inmates, she would play around with pianos or complicated control pads, or so forth. Mr. Freeze would be more likely to disassemble, hack, or repair the devices in Arkham, and to build up a lair. There are a lot of potential ways to do it, and it would require some prototyping to figure it out in detail.

The second point of strong gameplay is the dynamic of all of the supervillains expanding into the asylum. This can not only provide the typical deep gameplay of strategic expansion, but also the added unique flavor of negotiating with total madmen, both from a position of strength and weakness.

The third point of strong gameplay comes from the plot and arcs we can introduce. Using some moderately flexible triggers, we can create an emergent story (we could even re-use the same components in the existing Arkham game, although I don't know why we'd bother). But, more than that, we can also have their madness evolve as the game progresses.

The point of the game is exploring the dynamics of the kind of fantasy madnesses these characters suffer from.

There are many other games you could come up with for a Batman theme exploring a point. It is somewhat hard to find a point that can support a thirty-hour game, but certainly not impossible. You could even make a game exploring the oldies but goodies that Batman has explored in the past, such as the existence of a superhero causing an upward spiral of supervillains.

Perhaps you have some good ideas yourself? At the very least, I hope you understand what I'm trying to say.

If you've played Arkham Asylum, tell me whether you thought the same things about it.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Holistic Design

"Holistic" has a bunch of new-agey connotations I don't like, but I can't think of any other words that mean the same thing. So, before I start, this has nothing to do with holistic health or medicine or any of that, all of which I think is crap. But, of course, this may be crap too.

There's a strong duality in the mind of many game designers. A feeling that the rules and the aesthetics/narrative are two distinct entities that come together to make a game. I don't believe this. I believe they can be separated and even recombined, but it's not an ideal or "natural" practice. I've been thinking about how to show this.

Katamari Damacy. You could theoretically separate out the aesthetics and replace them with anything. Earlier I used the example of organic proteins. Which would be a pretty boring aesthetic at first glance, but let's consider it.

The idea of rolling around and sticking things to your ever-growing sticky ball can theoretically be decoupled from the fact that you're rolling over toys and squids and people and planets. But those decoupled mechanics have very little value.

Mating them up with a different aesthetic sounds like it should be simple and translate well. But any new aesthetic/narrative you define would be better served by other rules. The same fundamental mechanic might serve in both situations, but the specifics would have to be redone to make it fit with the new aesthetic.

For example, a Katamari Damacy where you roll up music notes and motes of light would certainly be possible, but it wouldn't make much sense for it to be rolling around on an open-map world with wild terrain. That would feel wrong. Instead, I'd move the Katamari to a tube-track like something from a Jeff Minter (Yak) game. The patterns created by moving forward in a spottily-floored tube give the otherwise unintriguing dots and notes an intriguing air.

Even though this is the same fundamental roll-over-stuff-and-get-bigger/bounce-off-larger-stuff, it isn't the same game. A twisty donut arrangement and much higher maximum speeds are better for this kind of aesthetic.

I could make the aesthetic the aforementioned proteins, which come in radically different sizes. Again, it would make no sense to have the same kind of world design as the original. Organic proteins are interesting because (A) they are on a radically different scale and (B) they are chemically interactive.

Perhaps a "swimming" Katamari would be the right idea, with proteins all floating around in patterns. Instead of a ball of souls, something like a squid of souls. Calamari Damacy. The camera would need to be different, obviously.

Another option might be that the level is made of the protein strands, and you race along them absorbing free electrons and sucking off atoms. That would be fun because you would change the nature of the level as you do this. For example, sucking off a hydrogen atom might result in the strand you're on fusing with a nearby strand.

The aesthetic is not separate from the gameplay. It appears that way at first glance, but it's like saying that the paint is separate from the painting, and that you could use that same paint to paint a different painting. Maybe, but the quantities would be weird and you'd be laying it down in radically different patterns.

What do you think?

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Mysteries of Scale

My mind's been stuck with the idea of little pieces of unique, touching content. I've been stuck on this ever since the failure of Spore, an unaccountable failure, a depressing failure, an idiotic failure.

One of the things that is most touching in games is when you discover something new and interesting (I call them "tidbits"). There's a lot to be said for games with deep and interesting gameplay, but there's also a lot to be said for the moment you first see a flying city or meet a particularly weird and entertaining fellow.

Well, I'm fairly confident of the basics of gameplay, but I have always had a harder time with the basics of tidbits. I like to think I'm relatively good at them, except that all my tidbits tend to be big impressive things rather than small, personal things. But unlike rules and dynamics... well, I can tell someone how well their rules are going to perform, what kinds of dynamics will result, and what they might want to think about changing. But I can't tell them how their tidbits are going to act, and suggesting new tidbits for them is hard to do without diluting their vision (assuming they have one).

I always find it fascinating when a game comes along that seems like it will let me see tidbits from other people, to learn more about how this sort of thing works. But these games always fall through. After so many games failed, I took a step back and decided to figure out why I didn't see anything I considered a tidbit in them. Why didn't I consider, say, an interesting SecondLife vehicle a tidbit? Why don't I consider a funny-looking creature in Spore a tidbit? But a six-by-six pixel blob with one line of text in a retro adventure game can feel like a tidbit!

I think it's in the framing.

I've been thinking about this. I think that if you slow way, way down, everything becomes tidbits. Because tidbits are interesting in comparison. An interesting NPC is interesting because he's weird-looking and he's got funny dialog. If there's fifty weird-looking, funny-dialog NPCs in this region, there's nothing tidbitty about any one of them. (Although the square full of weird people could be tidbitty in itself!)

I think if Spore gave up its content a hundred times slower, I think people might feel a little of a sense of wonder at the creatures and civilizations they find. At least for the first hundred or so. But because they are common as dirt, none of them are interesting except for the ones that are programmed by the game designers to stand out (the center-of-the-galaxy guys, for example). Everyone else just blends in.

Similarly, in SecondLife, if you take it very slowly and consider each thing you find, then every other thing suddenly takes on life as a tidbit. If you look closely and slowly, everything that has been hand-crafted has some little tingle of tidbittiness.

I don't think that these are ideal tidbits in either case. I'm simply saying that you can have player content result in the same kind of emotional response you can get from developer-scripted content. It just requires a radical reworking of the game's pacing.

And the game doesn't even have to be slow. It just has to reveal different kinds of things at different times. You can be jumping across platforms, shooting at aliens, and all that... when you encounter some new NPC. The NPC will be interesting because NPCs have been made very rare.

There's all sorts of theories I have as to how to punch up the tidbitty nature of things - how to make them more interesting to the player. But I haven't tested any of them yet, so they're just smoke.

However, the speed of reveal has been tested and can easily be tested. Just play a game with large amounts of player content, such as Spore or Secondlife. Then play to restrict yourself. Don't play to win: play to see the world, but only one new object every minute.

It makes the games even more boring than they already are, but you can feel the little twinge that you get from seeing something new and interesting.

Do you know what I'm talking about? Do you have any opinions?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Fairy Tale Games

The problem with fairy tales is that classic fairy tales are structured very badly for statistical gameplay. They are, flatly, adventure games. Albeit generally ones that are long on narration and short on puzzles. They aren't RPGs.

Now some modern fairy tales have been created which either have plenty of statistical play or, at least, can be easily adapted into games that have statistical play. Prime examples of this include Quest for Glory (a computer game) and Thieves and Kings (a comic/illustrated story). There are plenty of others.

These systems do pretty well at one- or perhaps two-character statistical play. But they are extremely difficult to adapt into four, five, ten, a thousand character play. They still have the memory of the original fairy tale structure, and therefore they always orbit a Hero, and anyone else he or she meets is likely to just be an Accomplice or Background Flavor. A good example of this are the classic Tolkien novels, with their scads of characters, only three or four of which are even worth remembering the names of. Think of this back before the movies came out, not since.

There are systems where many characters - five, six, even seven - can all get along well enough and do cool things in a statistical setting. As far as I can tell, these were all pioneered by the dark and sinister crossover of WWII wargames and WWII fantasy novels Tolkien's books. Dungeons and Dragons and its ilk.

Fundamentally, they took all the elements of war stories and mixed them with fairy tales to come up with a statistical variety. Magicians have a different way of playing than warriors than thieves than elves than... well, you get the idea.

By introducing this highly varied statistical system, these games allowed players to all play together as a functioning team, each player having different capabilities which are more or less useful in various situations and don't require a main hero that dwarfs the other members of the party. (Although early balancing being what it was, this often happened anyway.)

If you notice, this is what the Lord of the Rings movies adopted to distinguish the ten billion minor characters those books contained. While seeing exactly how an elf or dwarf fights as opposed to a human has no particular story merit, it looks cool and is very well known. So now we can remember Legolas as The Elf That Surfs Wooden Planks Down Stairs While Firing Fistfuls Of Arrows And Looking Intense. Before the movies, we would remember him as, "Oh, was there an elf in that party? Yeah, I guess there was." Not that there's any real story difference between those two memories, because Legolas, along with just about everyone else, is there only to serve as background noise until their single plot event.

But there is a gameplay difference.

This gameplay difference is extremely good at allowing for small parties like this, and is the backbone of nearly every modern RPG, both tabletop and computer. How large and diverse your parties can be depends almost entirely on how distinguishable your characters are from each other statistically. So some games, like Disgaea, allow you to have many characters in any given battle and dozens of characters in your roster. They do this because their statistical play is so complex and nuanced that there is an almost infinite variation available. Of course, they are also almost unapproachably complex to many gamers for the same reason, so there's a tradeoff.

MMORPGs have a fun time of this, too, trying to balance variation with complexity and... uh... balance.

Anyhow, that's all getting off the track. These statistical variations are a trick to make you able to have more than just one or two main characters like old games and fairy tales. However, they make it difficult to tell a fairy tale.

FFVI (FF3 as it was called when I played it) gives us a good example of an approach that might help. Like many other games of its time, it had many characters, but it took a somewhat unusual stance that you might remember: the party got split up and you had to play through their story segments separately. This isn't unique to FFVI, but FFVI is the game I bet everyone's played.

This method requires the same diversity of stats to keep play fresh, but by creating multiple independent sub-fairy-tales it gets around the hopelessly dreary march from A to B that most of these games have. Of course, this solution is probably not ideal, as it does involve quite literally making multiple games. It also doesn't adapt well to tabletop games.

Radical diversity of gameplay is another option. This is when the various character classes have SUCH different capabilities that they are essentially playing a different game. This is a subject all its own, but it doesn't work very well in tabletop games due to the way it pulls the GM apart.

A few theoretical methods I've come up with - some of which I've used to a bit of success, some still untested - might be worth mentioning.

One is the Worldbuilder method. In this method, the game is not about dungeon crawling (although there is plenty of it): it's about worldbuilding. For example, players might build or obtain a castle, they might recover or enchant a magic sword, or discover a long-lost spell, or open up a cave full of obedient golems... and, of course, the Enemy might do all of those same things.

In this case the players probably start statistically fairly similar to each other - somewhat distinct, but not tremendously. As they proceed, they define themselves by what they have (and where they are). Someone with a magic crystal sword will have statistical characteristics that revolve around it, while the same character with their own castle will have different characteristics (such as guards). The very act of defining and obtaining these things can also set side quests in motion, allowing for loosely connected MMO plots.

The basic play results in kind of a magic-the-gathering sort of feel, but it also results in an a very fairy-tale feel as well. These games tend to be fairly short - five or six sessions each - but they lend themselves well to multiple games played consecutively in the same world.

The best method I've found for allowing this kind of variation is to allow players to generate two fairy tale elements out of components, and then the GM chooses his favorite for the Enemy. If the players choose to contest it and try to obtain it before the Enemy does, then they have a tough fight ahead of them and the Enemy gets the second object instantly.

Of course, it's not just defining and obtaining components, because these things need to wrap back in on themselves, but you get the basic idea.

Another method of doing fairy-tale games without being simple fantasy games is to use less character-centric play. If the players don't play individual characters but instead play, say, concepts, then the players can use the characters like chess pieces to build the game into a meaningful and deep story.

This is also not a new idea, although it's still fairly rare. It's extremely rare to give the players an actual goal, too: most of these systems simply use a bidding system to make players form conflicts. That doesn't give players enough of a goal for me, so I strongly recommend giving players a concept or moral-of-the-story or something that they can strive for that isn't directly related to in-game assets. IE, don't make them want to revive a kingdom or save a princess. Those are character goals. Player goals would be more like "show crime doesn't pay" or "you get a point for every round of a duel (2-character fight)".

Can you think of any other methods to make fairy-tale-like games? Have you ever used any of these methods, or played in a fairy-tale-like game?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

PC Madness

I'd like to talk about madness in live games (both tabletop and LARP). And fortunately, not only do I want to talk about it, but someone asked me to. So I don't feel too silly.

In most games, insanity comes in one of two ways. Either statistical or freeform.

Freeform insanities are the most common. That's when you just take a trait like "paranoid" and play it however seems reasonable. There's nothing particularly wrong with that, and good players can do it well. However, it does have two draw backs. The first is that many players won't do it well, and the second is that it doesn't have a strong connection to the game world, which means it may interfere with rather than help the gameplay.

Statistical insanity is used by games that "specialize" in insanity in a desperate attempt to wedge insanity into the core gameplay. The biggest example is the Cthulhu game, and the other Cthulhu game, and that other Cthulhu game, you know the one. I suppose we could mention this Cthulhu game too, and that one if we feel a bit mad.

This legislated statistical insanity allows for the rules to dictate an insane reaction. For example, you might be forced to run in fear, or gibber for 2d10 turns, or whatever. They also give the GM a clear indicator if he wants to play unreliable narrator. Low-sanity characters can see things in an unusual manner or, if the GM is a poor GM, see random crap, whatever he pulls from the hat.

Statistical sanity is also often linked to other game performance. For example, you might have to have a certain minimum or maximum sanity to perform a certain spell.

I do not like either of these approaches. The first has no structure to serve as a foundation for a game, and the second is a good foundation but is not terribly good at actually making the players feel their characters are insane.

I've experimented with character insanity in many ways. It's not an easy thing to work into a game properly, which is probably why nobody does. I have not discovered a way to base a game entirely on madness. It either makes it impossible for the players to act coherently OR it requires a huge amount of GM effort.

But I have figured out how to integrate madness into many other kinds of games.

Let me show you how I do it.

The basic idea is simple: reward the players for being insane.

The specifics are more complicated than that, so let me explain a bit more.

In Bastard Jedi, madness was a big part of the game. However, it was couched in such a way that I don't think any of the players figured out until several weeks into the game that they were going insane. Or even that it was possible.

The mechanic was very simple. Everyone had a few emotional axes, such as humility vs arrogance and harmony vs anger. They have a score in that axis, such as a +2 or a -1. At any time, they can act suitably whatever and receive a number of extra dice equal to their rating. So someone with a -1 anger could gain a die by acting harmonious or lose a die by acting angry.

Very simple, and an obvious, clear path to falling and rising, right?

Nnnnnnno, not really. The mechanics are simple, but the resulting dynamic has several layers because it screws with the player's head a bit. As a clear example, after a player has gotten used to relying on being humble when they need a few dice, you find something fascinating: the player character has developed a rather serious self-esteem problem. Even when the player doesn't need dice, he's in the habit of being humble, legitimized by the idea that he has to be "ready" to pull the humble out at any moment.

Humility... that's a light side trait, though, right?

No, I never said that. You can fall to humility. I don't know if you noticed, but you just did.

This "lead-in" trick works exceptionally well and on all kinds of players. Even shy or socially inept players have an easy enough time bending the short distance required to express a simple emotion, and it becomes second nature remarkably fast. Lead-ins aren't suitable for one-shots, but for anything that runs over a few months, the technique can be used at will. The players will happily wander into full-blown insanity without any explicit help from you, without even a list of insanities.

Depending on the situation, the players may instead draw BACK from full-blown insanity. But they know it's there, and that immerses them very deeply in both their character and the game world.

I can't guarantee its efficacy for other GMs, but it's always worked spectacularly for me, and I'm a fairly "hands off" GM.


The other method I've used with somewhat less success (but still more than Cthulhu or Cthulhu. Or even Cthulhu!) is the sanity tradeoff.

For example, if you get superpowers, you get insanities to go with them.

The key to this is that your insanity is directly entangled with your superpower, either as an obvious social result or as a psychological source of power. This means you need a wider variety of subtler insanities. There's no Axis of Insanity where you randomly roll to see if you're gibbering or running in terror this round.

For example, if you gain the ability of flight, then you can take one of two insanities. One is that you can't fly unless you are feeling a specific emotion, such as detachment or panic. (One of them, not either of them.) In this situation, the insanity powers your ability.

"That's not insanity!"

Ssssshhh... you don't start insane. You go insane.

The other option is to have an insanity that is a clear result of the ability to fly - the social result. For example, feeling "above it all". This is also not an insanity, it's just being snooty. While the insanity-powered ability is mandated by the need to fly, the ability-result insanity has to have a different mechanic. I generally use "active tokens". When I think the player is acting his mental difficulties out, I give him the token. When I think he isn't, I take it away. As long as he has the token, he can use the ability. This works okay with 3-4 players, but some other method is almost certainly possible, and it could certainly use some refinement.

The player characters are rapidly (depending on your timescale) given additional abilities either powered by the same insanity or resulting in the same insanity. Unfortunately, it also means that the player has to go further into the mindset.

What was once powered by a simple feeling of detachment is now much more powerful but must be powered by a feeling of profound isolation and uncaring. It becomes necessary to actually do acts that show how detached you are. In the beginning you might have refused to give a beggar change. Now you must sweep past him without even seeing him. Your friends want your help? Well, if you turn them down, you'll be able to use your power for the rest of the day...

Any otherwise normal (if slightly peculiar) mental states can be blown up into full-blown insanity if you let the players grow into it.

This method seems less efficient, but I haven't given it nearly as much polish or playtesting, so take it for what it's worth.


Notice that in both methods I never give explicit instructions. There is no "you must run around screaming now", no "oh, you see a giant purple iguana flying around your head". I just let the players take things to an insane extreme. You might think this limits the kinds of insanities you'll end up with, but that's not the case. Players are quite creative and will usually come up with much more convincing insanities than your rule book.

Basically, my philosophy is that true insanity comes from within.

Have any of you used these techniques? I've used them in games large and small, but I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Mechanics that Change the Game

The mechanics of the game fundamentally change how it is played, and what kind of flavor the game has. A lot of people seem to forget this, and they instead think about how to tweak the parameters of familiar mechanics to give the proper feel. For example, I've seen people try to run horror-themed D&D games, and I've seen people try to run lighthearted, slapstick Shadowrun games.

I've also seen this in computer games, where old techniques are recycled into a very different kind of game, and it doesn't usually end well. At least computer games have the excuse that making a new set of mechanics is actually difficult. There's no excuse for using the same mechanics over and over in tabletop games, unless your only point is to be as familiar as possible to the players.

There are a wide variety of relatively simple rule changes you might want to think about making to give your games different flavors. These are suggesting with tabletop games in mind, but they can be adapted to anything.

Replacing the Randomizer

Most new designers of tabletop games are happy to simply change the number of sides on the dice you roll. After all, rolling a bunch of d10s is quite different from rolling a bunch of d6s, right? And what if you have to roll a bunch of DIFFERENT kinds of dice? Whoa, it's like a breakthrough.

Well, you can make dice feel different, especially if you throw in exploding dice or pattern matching results (pairs are worth more, or rolling three sixes kills you, or whatever). Dice are also easy to calculate if you run that way: you can easily determine the precise chances of things happening if you know how many dice they have and what their target is.

But there are lots of ways to replace the randomizer. There are two basic categories: replacing the random function and offsetting the random function. Replacing the random function is just a matter of choosing a different method of randomization. Most are interchangeable with dice to a large extent, but some are not. For example, if you use cards, then the cards drawn from the deck cannot be redrawn, so it is possible to count the cards, modify which cards are put into the deck, and other things that "stack" the deck to your (or your players') preference.

My preferred method is to offset the randomizing function, by which I mean that the randomness is controlled by the players. For example, if the players are each given five cards that they look at and can play on any conflict, then it is up to the players to choose which cards they will use up when. Add in trading cards and character-specific pattern recognition, and trading cards becomes a major element of the game.

There are lots of other methods, such as allowing players to bid on dice, or spend points to reroll/redraw, or using tokens rather than dice with both sides revealing their "bids" at the same time. All of these reduce the amount of actual randomness by granting the player some level of control. All of them also make a significant part of the gameplay about figuring out the best tactics. If you are careful, you can craft your offset rules to guide the players into a particular mindset.

For example, in one of my Bastard Jedi games, I used the aforementioned card-based system, including all the trading and pattern matching. One thing I did on top of that was give out cards that had red backs as well as the normal, blue-backed cards. These were "rewards" for doing dark-side things, or were channeled from the local dark side miasma. Choosing when and how to use dark side cards was one of the three or four methods I used to make the dark side both more attractive and less clear-cut.

Stat Arcs

Another big deal if you're trying to make a game feel a certain way is to create stat arcs. This is a system whereby a stat will trend in a particular direction for a particular reason. One example of this is the insanity mechanic in most cthulu games. Another example is any game where you actively spend stats to do things, and can only rarely regain them. Other examples might include dwindling batteries, fame (as a useful stat), and equipment that degrades with use.

It's possible to do positive stat arcs, too, although somewhat more difficult.

Stat arcs are only valuable if the player is given the option of either proceeding along the arc or doing something else. Dwindling batteries dwindle a lot faster when you fire your laser cannons, so it's up to the player: fire the laser cannons, or find another way out of the situation. Obviously, if one choice or the other is clearly the better choice, it's not really a choice at all. If you can either fire your laser cannons or just wish them to death with your brain, you'll never even hesitate.


Somewhat related to stat arcs and sometimes embedded in them is the idea of tradeoffs. This is rare in most modern games, because they have a continuous "upwards and onwards" feeling. However, tradeoffs can really make a game interesting.

For example, I ran a game where you could be radically enhanced, but each enhancement saddled you with more insanity. This led to an interesting situation where players had to weigh how insane they could afford to be (really insane, not the easy insanity most games feature). Obviously, the radical enhancements weren't the only source of gameplay power, or there would have been little in the way of choice. Instead, both equipment and skills played a roll. Just... less efficiently.

There are lots of examples of this in every non-game arena. Sacrifice to get your job done. Even comics have "with great power de blah blah". The closest a game comes is making it so that if you choose the good path instead of the evil path you don't receive the extraneous, useless power-ups for at least another ten minutes.

Cut and Choose

I like this method because it's not very nice. I find that most of the best methods are not very nice.

Using a cut-and-choose mechanic relies on some kind of bidding system where a player will say "either this or this". For example, "I stab him with the sword and he dies OR he stabs me with the sword and I'm badly wounded."

Obviously, whoever is doing the choosing (it's always someone else) will choose whichever appeals to them most. It's not really much of a choice unless they like the other guy, too. But it can be designed with a better set of choices.

The best way I've found to do this is to do a reflect. That is, once the player gives the basic options, the GM (or other adversary) attaches price tags of some kind to each choice. Whichever one the player picks, he pays for, and whichever one is left over, the adversary pays for.

So the adversary might say, "killing the enemy will cost you five karma, but getting maimed is free". Now, if the player chooses to kill the enemy, the adversary is up five karma (or, perhaps, the karma vanishes). If the player chooses to get injured, then the adversary is the one who pays.

The cut-and-choose method does require an adversarial relationship, as it's extremely easy to work together to derail the system otherwise. This is usually best done by making it a zero sum game of some manner. That way, even if they collude, the colluder will quickly run out of resources.

Anyhow, all of these methods can be used as primary or secondary resolution mechanics that dramatically change the flavor of the game. Have you ever used them? Can you think of any others?

There are a lot of specifically interplayer mechanics I want to talk about, but that'll have to wait.

Monday, August 10, 2009


Previously on ProjectPerko: the problem of 3D printing. This week's episode: Makerbot makes a move!

I think this is a good first step. At first, I was a little derogatory: they're essentially manufacturing need for manufacturing when there isn't really any. But after a moment, I became more positive.

There is no need for "crowdsourced manufacturing" or even its superset brother "minifacturing". As I said, there's simply no particular interest among the public for being able to build small numbers of a huge variety of things. Most people are happy to buy one of a billion manufactured, non-customized objects for a fraction of the price.

However, I do not think this disproves the concept of minifacturing. The idea of manufacturing things in your basement seems outlandish and unreasonable, but so does having your own personal computer. I can't imagine any reason anybody would need their own home computer.

So I do think that minifacturing has a tremendous future. I don't see it exactly, but I see its shadow, in the same way that you could see the shadow of the internet on the first personal computers.

And I think that manufacturing a need is, for the moment, not a bad idea. Sure, it's just a shadow of real demand... but these sorts of things might help shape a real demand. And once that happens, maybe things will change.

Personally, I still think that minifacturing's breakthrough probably lies mostly in guerrilla home-improvement: minifacturing solar panels, water purifiers, etc. But I wouldn't bet one way or another. Shadows are notoriously hard to interpret.

Join us again next time, same print-time, same print-channel.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Expectations of Control

I keep thinking about control in games. Because I'm a simulationist at heart. I want to know that if I push this to happen, then other things happen descending from it.

I remember reading Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books, which fascinated me even if I never followed the combat rules or anything else that required stats or dice. It didn't bother me that I couldn't "choose the things I wanted", because it was presented in such a way that it was obvious there was no real simulation involved. I was just navigating something that was already written.

Similarly, I don't feel disappointed by adventure games or other very heavily-scripted games, because it's obvious there's not any kind of adaptive simulation. Funnily enough, as soon as these games include even a hint of adaptive simulation - such as giving you choices between two distinct plot branches - I start to get itchy.

"You gave me a choice, which means you CAN give me choices, which means you SHOULD give me choices, but you aren't, which means you suck!"

Obviously, I understand intellectually that most of these choices are of the choose-you-own-adventure variety and are not simulated. But I grew up with so many simulators that the itch is very strong.

This is the reason I dislike Knights of the Old Republic, and anything else that gives you "good or bad" choices. At first it seems like a simulation to my instincts, but even when I realize it's not, I still want more detailed and reactive control over my goodness and badness.

Do any of you have this problem?

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Advances in Game Design

I got in a short argument with someone on Twitter. He takes the position most people seem to take: that games have advanced technologically but not in terms of gameplay.

This sets my teeth on edge.

First, the two are inextricable to a surprising degree. We couldn't have a 3D shooter without the technology that allows it. We can't have Boomblox without decent physics simulation. We can't have Mario Galaxy without an overpowered level design system to keep developers from going insane. We can't have MMORPGs without the internet.

But more than that, game design has advanced tremendous amounts. It's just easy to ignore. Let's look at a few MAJOR, VERY COMMON titles.

Mario Galaxy. Would you dare to say it's just a platformer? That the design hasn't "advanced much" since Super Mario Brothers?

Prototype. I don't like the game, but the 'minor' technical upgrades allow it to have a smooth and flowing play experience. Is anyone willing to pretend it's not significantly different from Moon Patrol?

Dead Rising, with it's brick-wall learning curve, has an impressive design that not only unfolds a spiral of avatar upgrades but also allows you to use/destroy almost everything in the mall.

Even Gears of War is significant design change from early shooters. You can pretend that it and Halo are not significantly different from their predecessors, but only if you're willing to pretend that a car is not significantly different than a horse-drawn cart.

Shall I start talking about less popular games? I don't think I'll even bother.

I think the reason so many people think that game design hasn't advanced much is because it's possible to trace modern games contiguously into the past. When you can see the change tiny increment by tiny increment, it's easy to not even see the progress.

But the progress is there. We've made tremendous progress.

Not to say we're perfect, or that we're even very good. But don't pretend we're still standing on the sand thinking about going in: we're already wading up to our knees.