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July Miscellany

(continuing to repeat by blogspot blog)

My monthly (sometimes) compilation of brief comments on games.

It's fairly easy to make a game that people will play once or twice, it's harder to make one they'll play five times, and it's really hard to make one they'll play a hundred times. In a sense, video game design is "easier" than tabletop design because the expectation is that people will play only once or twice. The drawback is that people will often play a video game a few minutes, or a couple hours, and then quit.

I was thinking again of simplifying games (see There seems to be a category of Euro style game nowadays that amounts to throwing a lot of mechanisms and bits together in an essentially abstract game, to provide what I call "mental gymnastics".

Traditional games are "clean." There are relatively few kinds of simple components. This is as opposed to so many contemporary Euros with their player sheets and lots of different kinds of pieces and cards.

Is it part of the nature of the triumph of capitalism that people are suspicious of something that's simple? In effect, game designers are sometimes substituting complexity for substance.

I think that if your game is abstract, it should be simple, to let players concentrate on the essence, not on a bunch of not-so-essential details. Checkers, chess, go, all succeed because they are essentially simple to learn and to play, but hard to play very well.

RPG designers are often frustrated novelists. They are more or less the opposite of Euro game designers. RPGers value story, Euro-ers frequently slap an atmosphere (often called theme) onto an abstract game.

In the July 2011 PC Gamer magazine, of the "top 13 most anticipated games" by readers, #s 1-11 were sequels, #12 (TERA) I do not know, and #13 was Batman: Arkum Asylum, which may or may not be considered a sequel.

This is another mark of the power of branding. People will buy what they've heard of rather than something unknown.

"Lying Fallow"
I find it useful and instructive to occasionally allow game designs I am working on to "lie fallow", like a farmer's field used to be allowed to sit unused as a way to rejuvenate it. (Now we use fertilizer, but there's no easy equivalent in game design.) I don't do anything with the game for several months or even longer, then dig it out to playtest further. Even for games that seem to be "done" this can reveal things that need to be "fixed" or changed, particularly in the way the rules are written, but also in the play itself.

When I don't remember how to play (and I try NOT to remember, having so many games in some stage of development), then I can see the game (and the rules) with "new" eyes. I distinctly recall thinking, in some cases "What the heck was I thinking of!?" (It's important to write down what you're thinking of, as you develop a game, so that you can find out why you were thinking as you were, when this happens.) It's also instructive when I try to find things in the rules, which may not be organized as well as I thought they were. (If I still had the rules fresh in mind I might not try to find anything in the written rules.)

Some people suggest that the reason we like games is because we learn something while playing. Decades ago games were a learning experience both before and during play. Now, with people not reading the rules, not trying to figure anything out beforehand, and sometimes trying to learn as they actually play, games are only a learning experience during play.

One reason why lately I've designed many games that primarily use cards is that this makes it easier for players to learn as they play. And to me it's not bad to have a lot of different kinds of cards, as players learn (through the cards) as they play.

(On the other hand, some say that people, in general, don't want to bother to learn anything new. That's why "traditional" games are so popular, everybody thinks they already know how to play.

Are "achievements" in video games so popular because the games themselves are really a bit dull and repetitive, and we need some incentive to keep playing other than enjoyment of playing the game?

Or are they something to "keep us in the flow" by making things more difficult after we've finished the basic game?

Or are they ways to make the "puzzle" more difficult after we've completed it once? Insofar as single-player video games are often interactive puzzles, this may be the answer.

In any case, I say "achievements, my foot". Because most of it isn't worth bothering with. Or to put another way, you're achieving nothing worth achieving.

The biggest difference between tabletop and video game design: in the larger video games, and to some extent in the smaller, it's "design by committee." Not only are there multiple designers ("five combat designers" alone), most of the other production staff want to contribute ideas, and will be unhappy if you don't treat them seriously, whether you use their ideas or not.

D&D adventures as Pro Wrestling
I haven't read many lately, but in the past the published D&D adventures were written assuming something like Pro Wrestling (WWE, TNA) in the way characters behaved. So many assume the players will stand around listening to long discourses when, in fact, true survival types would be acing immediately to do away with the bad guys or get out of the area. The writers assume the players will bumble around in a group rather than use scouts or detection devices: kind of like wrestlers not noticing or looking for the obvious stuff that the audience sees (and sometimes tries to warn them about).

I suppose in that respect they're like a lot of movies, too. The standards of what makes sense have changed (degraded). Modern cinema has taken over RPGs.

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blog | by Dr. Radut