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Game Design

Game Design: Iteration

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OK, funny thing happened yesterday.

I came back from a print shop with an 300 gr A3 board full of cards. And, just to disappoint you as much as I did my wife, these were not my game’s card.

Yesterday I discovered the worst feeling in the world. Disappointing my wife. Holy shit, I had never been on that particular stool and I don’t care to ever sit on it again.

But it came from the most unexpected angle. See, I’m developing this game quite under wraps. I tell very little people about it yet, because I don’t want to make too much of a fuss about it, considering I have some other issues to attend to that make game development seem like the stupidest possible endeavour.

Certainly, I hoped my wife wouldn’t think too much of it, because she’s dealing with these other issues as much as I am and sometimes a lot more. I felt that letting her know I was devoting my time to developing a game was not only a dumb thing to do but a complete waste of time. She knows I’m passionate about them. Hell, she even plays quite a few games herself. But I always felt like we’re talking about F-level priorities when game development is concerned.

Well, apparently, not so. Of late I had to put it a few extra hours to make a few things of this project come together. She, being my wife, of course noticed and asked me about what I was doing. My shush job is not my strongest suit, so I answered vaguely with some Illustrator/Photoshop mumbojumbo.

Imagine your wife’s face. If you don’t have a wife, imagine your girlfriend’s face. Now imagine it sad. Sadder. Take all the wind out of her. That’s the face she presented.

“Oh, I thought you had finally made a game!”

Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has just left the building.

Anyway, about iteration. The thing I realised is that I’ve been jumping the gun. Everything I have had until now are just ideas. The vampire game. The fire game. And a billion others that popped into my mind as I crunched through Schell’s book. They aren’t games, and ideas are a dime a dozen. Really.

So I decided to record every single game idea I’ve had so far that I can remember since I started reading this book. I just dumped them on an Excel spreadsheet. If I get a good riff on one of them going, I just jot down additional notes for them. Still, just ideas. Not games, ideas.

The first thing I have to do is choose the idea that I think has the best chances of surviving the gauntlet.

Right off the bat? I’ve got like 18 game ideas. Not 300, or 3,000, certainly not 30,000. Just 18. Ranging from pretty good to absolutely bland. I like “very low-level D&D”, think a “duelists” game has potential, think a game about an “auction of ridiculous opulence and competitiveness” sounds stupid but fun and that a game about creating a “spaceship engine by adding tiles and distributing power” might be really cool.

I’ll put each idea quickly through a condensed ringer and see what comes out. I’ll give myself a little while to mull things over before picking a finalist. I can already kind of tell that the fire game is out or will change dramatically before even coming out of the gauntlet.

#15 Eight Filters

#16 Risk Mitigation

#17 Toy

#18 Passion

Game Design: Elements III

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I couldn’t test drive even the most rudimentary form of game prototype this weekend.

I realized last time that I had nothing. Or, more likely, I had something. Just not clearly defined.

I played some Oink Games games this weekend. “Insider“, “Deep Sea Adventure“, “Startups“. They were all amazing and all just slightly larger than two stacked packs of playing cards. The first one had cards, a plastic hourglass and 7 role tokens. The second one had a small cardboard submarine with an oxygen counter printed on it, six coloured meeples, a small wooden token to keep track of oxygen levels and a bunch of shape-coded tokens representing treasure. The last one had six company tokens, a bunch of two-sided coins (1 and 3), a stack of company cards and a few extra chits for an alternate playing mode that we didn’t really use.

I repeat, they were all incredible. They were so, so, so much fun. We played each one multiple times over, loving every single playthrough.

Congrats to everyone involved in getting those games in my hands!

I’m willing to go out on a limb here and say that these incredible games didn’t fit in these boxes during development.

I need to put footprint in the back. I need to put aesthetics, story, technology away. I need to focus on creating a fun game.

“You can watch someone and copy moves, but you can’t copy inspiration.”

I could try for the rest of my life to copy Bruce Lee, but I’d never be able to get his moves just right. He had his own thing going on, as we all, so there’s no point in striving for a perfect copy.

It’s funny. I’m reading my notes and, amongst many ideas for games, there’s one about “scuba diving”. I just played a game about scuba diving and treasure hunting and, let me tell you, the designer nailed the feeling for it. Yeah, you got other variables, but everyone who’s gone scuba diving knows that oxygen is what matters. You gotta keep an eye on your oxygen levels. Everything else comes second because, if you run out of oxygen, you got seconds to live. Everything you do under water, every decision you make, is mediated by your oxygen supply. In that respect, “Deep Sea Adventure” is pure genius. Get it.

What’s the quintessential experience of building a fire? I’ve built a fair few. I should be able to pin this down!

It’s the trance of the dancing flames.

It’s the warmth.

It’s the embers in the heart of it.

It’s getting lost in its wonder.

When travelling across Turkey a couple of years ago, my mom and I were staying at a pretty snazzy hotel. It had everything you could possibly wish for and more, but given its modern design, what it did not have was a fireplace. Of course, a fireplace is a pretty specific thing to want, so most people are not troubled by it. But if you’ve been out on a cold, rainy day, want to take your wet socks off and dry off? Trust me, a fireplace is exactly the kind of thing you want. This hotel, however, didn’t have one on account of its aforementioned modern design.

What it did have, though, was a fairly cozy reading room across the reception area of the lobby.

In it, a large selection of books was available. It had comfy armchairs, tables and warm lighting. It also had, however and for some bizarre reason, a large TV right where a fireplace should be.

A large, crisp 1080p TV, a video of a crackling fireplace playing merrily on its screen.

Instinctively I approached it. The damn room didn’t have anything resembling heating, and I was still needing the comfort and coddling that warmth promised. I approached the screen.

And, of course, nothing. My monkey brain stood there for a second, confused. Then I burst out laughing. A few minutes later, the screen switched to another kind of fireplace, then to another, then another. My mother and I found this hilarious. This was so not what we needed.

The hotel, the reading room and the TV have all gone down in our personal history as the place where we found “The Fireplace Channel, Home to the Best Fireplaces From Around the World!”.

When we want to bring attention to something that we find particularly ridiculous, useless or inane, we always bring up The Fireplace Channel.

There’s little that I can remember that proved to be a greater disappointment than huddling around a digital fireplace and feeling no warmth.

And for that I have ridiculed the hotel, that reading room, that TV and the whole concept of a fireplace TV channel for years now!

Can you convey the feeling of warmth without actually lighting something on fire? Can you convey what firelight does for us without building a fire?

Because fire, without warmth or light, will not feel like fire. A game about fire that does not get those feelings across is, if not completely pointless, not on theme.

“He who derails, rerails.”

#13 Infinite Inspiration

#14 Problem Statement

Game Design: Elements II

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Now listening to: mirth, laughter and a guitar.

So, back to the drawing board. I’ve got an initial Y-shaped burning tree. I’ve got my stack of fuel cards. And I can already tell that there’s a pretty obvious mistake I’ve made.

I have no idea how this is supposed to work. So I step into the shoes of the first player.

Player 1: I go out in search for wood. (take a burning log)

*draws three cards

(… is it more exciting to not be able to reveal what you found?)

Player 2: I too go out to search for wood. (take burning log)

*draws three cards

(… hmmm, this is the same, isn’t it?)

Player 3: Uh…

BRRRNT! First problem. The third player is out of things to do. Even worse, there’s nowhere to go, strategically speaking. Either you go out and search for wood or… what?

Erase. Again.

So it’s the mechanics, by far, the piece of a game that needs the most attention in the early phases of development. I mean, really, right now? Aesthetics don’t matter. Technology doesn’t really matter unless a lack of it impedes the flow of the game. Story only matters insofar as it inspires interesting mechanics to play around with. Interplay between the mechanics and the story will drive development of the game forward.

If to write a mighty book you need a mighty theme, to develop a mighty game you probably need the same kind of thing, right? A resonant theme. That’s easier said than done. A strong theme drives a strong story, and from a strong story the inspiration for strong mechanics flows. I should get in the shoes of the cavemen and really try to capture what fire meant for them when they discovered it. It meant survival. It meant taking control of nature. It meant man at the top of the food chain. It’s fire that’s made man transcend the monkey and venture into the darkness of the night.

So I need to prey on my players. The hunted need to become the hunters. A victory condition could be to rewrite the food chain with them at the top. That’s interesting. Maybe they get chewed on during the first half of the game. And once fire is discovered, there’s their chance to make a break for it, so to speak.

#10 Holographic Design

#11 Unification

#12 Resonance

Game Design: Elements

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That being said, I can’t stop writing and reading while I wait for each playtest.

Even if I can make ’em happen weekly, which is a big “if”, I need to read and write faster than that. Some of Schell’s questions will have to be tagged as “TC” (“to come”) until I can answer them with further playtesting.

So, about elements.

There’s a reason, apparently, as to why I became so invested in looks. It’s the most visible part of the game. In fact, a large portion of the modern gaming industry treads on looks and polygon count. Holy fuck, if I’m gonna shoot straight dice, my last two computer purchases were probably completely driven by that single factor. And the kicker is, I don’t even like those high poly games. I’m perfectly happy playing Monaco, or Fez, or WoW, or Crusader Kings 2. Never have I ever felt the need to really upgrade my computer because a game I truly, really, actually loved demanded more than what I had to give.

Except, maybe, Skyrim.

But yeah, aesthetics count. They’re just not important right now. Right now, what’s important is to get the mechanics right. It’s what’ll make the game fun. The right mechanics, the right story, underpinned by the right technology.

Technology? Right now it’s cards, so I think we’re OK.

Story? I still feel it might be a little bit dry, but if add a few mechanics which might make the game even more enjoyable there might be a story to tell there.

And mechanics? Well, that’s what I should be working on right now. That’s what I should’ve been grinding over these past few months. Zeroing in on the few interesting mechanics that either make my game a fun game to play or a piece of garbage.

So I need a goal for my players, which right now should be to survive.

  • How? By keeping a large enough bonfire alight.
  • How? By placing fuel on top/next to the already lit sections of the fire to keep it going.
  • How? By scrounging for resources.

There’s a lot to unpack right there.

At its core I want the game to be a sort of puzzle game where, turn over turn, the puzzle changes. You’re sort of managing a naturally dwindling fire that’ll go out if you don’t add enough fuel. To add fuel, you need to place the logs over or adjacent to other lit logs and in the next turn you flip them over to their lit side. The logs stay lit for a whole round and then go out, so players need to go out and get more. But there’s a trade-off, because each player gets only a couple of actions on their turn:

  • Search for logs: take a lit log from the burning pile to do this. It is consumed in the process. You may draw three cards from the top of the deck.
  • Add to the bonfire: you may take three logs from the general supply and add them to the bonfire.

This is not terrible, but it is certainly limited within the spectrum of decision-making. Firstly, you don’t get to choose the cards you draw when you search. You are just given the top three cards. There’s no strategy there. Secondly, when you return, you just get to add them wherever you want within the mosaic of unlit, lit and burnt logs that is the puzzle. Very, very thin strategy there as well. And I haven’t even figured out how the “general supply” factors into all of this, or why is it even necessary.

So the only interesting thing is figuring out how to place the logs to keep the fire going, which kind of sucks. I mean, there may be some meat on those bones, but it’s congealed gristle.

Let’s give it another shot.

How about we start with a little story?

  • There’s a miserable bunch of cavemen huddling beneath a tree while a storm rages around them. They’re cold from the rain and afraid of the wolves that are about to eat them.
  • Suddenly, lightning strikes the tree, lightning it on fire. Warmth seeps into the cavemen’s bones and the wolves disperse.
  • They are saved, and realize that fire is a powerful tool to wield. As long as there’s enough fire, they’re safe.
  • Not long after, they are scrambling to keep it alight.

OK.

So maybe the game can start with a few pre-lit and unlit logs? Kinda like a starting scenario that allows the players more freedom to explore? Maybe a roughly Y-shaped thing at the centre? So now the players can go out and search for fuel.

Searching for fuel, the cavemen find different kinds of things. Kindling, tinder, softwoods, hardwoods. These can have different effects when placed on the ongoing bonfire. Softwoods could be your standard kind of wood. If you place it, it lights up by the start of the next player’s turn. Maybe hardwoods take longer to light up but last longer as well? You can add some tempo considerations into the game as well. Maybe tinder or kindling lights up right away, allowing you to pull off a magnificent save or jumpstart something.

Now, what do cavemen need to survive? Assuming they have a ready supply of water, they also need food. Maybe, at the end of each month, the tribe needs to have a certain amount of food. Without food, the cavemen starve and die, losing the players the game. This is starting to sound a bit Agricoly, which is not a bad thing, but it may step into the realm of something more complicated than what I want.

… let’s cross out food for now. They just need to have X amount of lit logs at the end of each of the 12 rounds. If not, they lose. Is 12 rounds to much? Hmm…

My first test will be to see if this firebuilding puzzle thing has any legs. Maybe it doesn’t, maybe it does. I can think of a couple of ways the exact mechanic can be exploited to make the challenge trivial so I’ll also test for that.

#9 Elemental Tetrad

Game Design: Resistance

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Now listening to: nothing.

I’ve hit my first Resistance roadblock. I’ve been finding myself unable to proceed without a working prototype. This is a larger gap than I had expected.

See, Schell’s book asks a lot of questions. That’s what a good book does, I guess. But I’ve been finding that a lot of questions cannot be answered without some playtesting. And some playtesting cannot be done without a game to test. So I’ve been trying to get a prototype going.

But that created another roadblock in itself. Because I knew (lol!) that even if I could wheedle my friends (lol again!) into playing my crummy little game (lololololololololol!), if it didn’t look good the odds of them ever playing it again would drop dramatically.

Keep in mind, I haven’t tested this game even once outside the vague ideas my head.

WARNING! lulz reaching critical levels…

Jesus, talk about getting over yourself.

You know what’s gotten the ball rolling again? That I’ve set myself the goal to read at least 12 books this year. Last year I could only manage 8, and I felt like an idiot, because the year before that I had managed 16 or something. But I cannot read the next book until I’m done with the current one.

So those are my options. Either I’ll get over myself and learn to make games, or at least read a book about how to make them, or I’ll never read anything else again.

So here we are.

My first idea was to buy small paper stock from Staples and cut it into quarters to get a small stack of blank cards going. After that, my plan was to draw what I need over them and have my friends playtest that. Simple, ugly, reasonably fast.

This was a couple of months ago.

I’ve spent the intervening period coming up with ways to cut down on the time required to make the cards faster and prettier. Exactly the opposite of what a prototype has to be.

Not gonna lie, I’m not proud.

Or, I am, but I’m also very stupid.

Right now, though? Screw it. I cut the paper into quarters. I’ll just draw what I need on them and take the prototype to a LAN party this weekend. My friends are actually kind of stoked to try my shitty little idea.

I feel kinda bad, though.

They’ll try something that neither they nor I know if it’s worthwhile or not. I should playtest it a bit with myself later tonight at least to see if it’s worth a damn.

IF I have time, I’ll spend some time fiddling around with Photoshop or Illustrator to send better cards to a local print shop.

Doubt it, though.

I just spent a couple of months doing fuck all.

Game Design: Game

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Now listening to: “Pirates of the Caribbean Soundtrack”

So the experience rises from the game. I’d rather not go all Raph Koster on the whole “what is a game” thing. Absolutely no offence meant. I just don’t have the chops to do it.

By far, the most boring job I’ve had thus far was copy-pasting numbers on a spreadsheet. Good ol’ data entry. But the problem with data entry as a job is not the job per se. It’s the frame of mind for the problem at hand. Had I reformulated my approach I might’ve derived some enjoyment from the experience.

Sadly, I didn’t.

I came across a similar scenario, years later. Instead of floundering, I decided to learn Visual Basic for Applications. I just figured that it was either that or shoot myself. The mind-numbing and soul-crushing task was now a challenge of automation through programming. I had no intention to have to ever repeat what I had already once gone through. So I applied myself to learn how to make software do what I didn’t want to.

To this day, it’s been one of my most fun and memorable job experiences.
What is pleasure without pain, though?

What is pleasure without pain, though?

Delight, although not defined as such, is a word that to me stands for unexpected pleasure. Dismay, well, is its opposite. I came up with a small, simple game last week after going through my earlier notes. It’s about fire and survival. Imagine my surprise when I found myself thinking about it more than my original project.

Imagine my delight when the goal, the problem and the methods of resolving it came to me almost effortlessly.

Imagine my dismay when I realised that this was a game that I was actually more interested in playing.

Do I think the game can surprise the players? Yes, for better or worse, it can. Is the story surprising? Not right now, although I haven’t seen other games doing this. Are the game rules surprising? Sort of, yeah. Again, I haven’t seen anyone else doing this. Is the artwork surprising? Not at all. I’ll have to work no that one. Is the tech surprising? Not at all. It’s all cards so far. So, 2/5 says “yes” and 3/5 says “no”. That’s pretty poor, and I’d be afraid if it weren’t for the fact that I feel this is a far more interesting and better game than what I had in mind initially.

I got the important aspect of surprise down. I can work towards the rest.

This fire game is a simpler game as well. Probably easier to develop too. I can already kinda imagine the fun in it. It’s a co-op puzzle solving game. Is it really a puzzle? Isn’t it? Don’t care. That’s what I’m calling it right now. If it needs to be defined better, it will be. This game will have good leap-of-faith moments. It’ll hopefully have just-in-time plays. It’ll have sweet clutch combos. So individual actions will need to be or build towards a satisfying-as-fuck experience.

I have no idea what kinds of questions will arise from the first playtest.

But here’s a great thing. I want to get this idea on the table and see if it has any legs. I didn’t want to, that bad, with the first one. Otherwise, I’d already have done it. Does the game need events to shake things up a bit? Does it have replayability? We’ll see.

Co-op games need to be more challenging to remain a fun experience. It’s a delicate balance. Go the Space Hulk: Death Angel route and you’ll risk alienating the players. Better to go the Pandemic route and allow players to gauge how much punishment they think they’re ready for. Avoid making luck a big thing. Luck spits in the face of careful plans and strategies. Unforeseen events are okay. They are the secret sauce of freshness. Constant random shit is just annoying and allows for no strategy. I think it’s going to be a sort of tile-laying, resource-management game.

Got bored of the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack. Switched to Red Dead: Redemption. Bored. Switched to Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag. Bored. They all sound the same.

If the mechanic at the core of the game is not fun, no amount of piling up on top will fix that. Keep it simple. See if it works. See if it makes the internal p-solving mechanism tick. If it does, tweak. If it doesn’t, no problem.

Scrap. Try again.

#4 Surprise

#5 Fun

#6 Curiosity

#7 Endogenous Value

#8 Problem Solving

Game Design: Dungeons, Dragons & Venue

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Now listening to: “Greatest Hits”, by Gypsy Kings

Strong Underground Prison Cells & Flying Lizards

So D&D starts too late.

There, I said it. D&D starts too late, and I think it’s a huge problem that makes many things suck for everyone else involved later on. D&D starts too late because, by the time players take control of their characters, the ball’s already been rolling for a good couple of feet.

There’s no “characters living their ordinary lives” scene. There’s no “call to adventure” scene. The characters are, starting right at level 1 and as stated in the Player’s Handbook itself, already beings with a destiny and a cut above everyone else.

And this sucks. It sucks because it removes the gravitas of an adventurer. There’s a reason all “Final Fantasy” games, no matter how bad, start with a tragedy. There’s a reason Wolf Team’s excellent “Tales of Phantasia” makes you dick around a forest with your best friend before launching you into high adventure. A good adventure story needs this sort of warm up.

And D&D, whatever else it may be, is at its core a collaborative adventure storytelling game.

I’ll cut to the chase. Taking a note from an excellent post at /r/dndbehindthescreen, I’ve been thinking of starting future D&D adventures from level 0. What do I mean? You don’t get your fighter, or your ranger, or your wizard. You don’t get your adventurer already having experienced his “ordinary lives” and “call to adventure” scene.

You get a commoner, with maybe a pitchfork, and I’ll pit you and everyone else against a goddamn pack of wolves attacking your village. Or whatever. I’ll give you something to truly worry about, and little to no means of defending yourself. And we’ll see how destined for greatness you really are.

You survive? Good. Now you get to pick a class that’ll firmly place you above the rest of the typical inhabitants of the world. You earned those special powers and abilities. You didn’t just get whacked over the head with the Special Hammer.

We’ll see how that goes.

Venue

So the essential experience of a game should be embedded as much as possible and in as many ways as possible in the game for it to be effective. And given that at least part of the essential experience of a game is affected by the venue one chooses for the game to take place in, it’s important to choose the venue wisely.

This is not the internal venue, but the external venue. You’ve got your Hearth, where TVs and consoles thrive. You’ve got your Workbench, where PCs and intense hours of play take place. And you’ve also got your Reading Nooks (ideal iPad fodder), your Public Venues (Disney ahoy!), the Theater (LARPing), the Arena (hello eSports!), the Museum, the Gaming Table, the Playground and… well, Anywhere really.

My horror game? I think I’d like to choose the Gaming Table. The gaming table is where the players take on the role of gods of the toy world. Not literal gods, mind you. More like observers from above. The Gaming Table is all about intensity. It’s a limited number of players. It’s physical presence.

I think the Gaming Table is a good match for a party who at times hunts and at times is hunted. It brings out the intimacy of the subject matter (treason and tension). It’s where the heated debates can happen best.

I am, however, concerned about the compatibility between the Gaming Table and a horror experience. Kingdom Death: Monster styles itself as a horror game. I do wonder, though, how effective it really is in eliciting that kind of reaction in its players.

And if we’re talking about essential elements, about the tropes and signifiers of a genre, horror usually has a hard time getting its conventions right consistently. So it’s probably best to begin with a venue that’s as compatible as possible with the genre. If the Gaming Table doesn’t work, it must just end up being a solo experience for the Reading Nook or the Workbench.

#3 Venue

Game Design: Emotion

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Now listening to: “Spiritual State”, by Nujabes

I want to make a game. In my mind, it’s still a board game. It’s been bouncing around my mind for two years. It’s a horror game.

I want to deal with the issues of separation.

I like “Dracula”. I think it’s a solid gothic horror novel. A classic, through and through. I always thought that I was reading the beginning of a story and the ending of another one. I like the mythologies behind “Dracula”. I like what’s implied by what little information we get about the titular character’s backstory. I also like the possibilities that fan out from the novel’s ending. In that sense, I think that “Dracula” is not unlike Star Wars. A baton pass between characters.

The tragedy of giving everything to fight monsters only to become one.

Every good story has a payload. A story should generate some sort of response from the audience. Euros are usually defined as abstract. That, however, doesn’t mean that they cannot convey an emotional experience effectively. It’s just harder, given their abstract nature.

I want my game to generate what stories like “Dracula” generate.

I think that horror is a really challenging genre for a game designer. Doubly so for a board game designer. There are countless examples of bad horror and there are few examples of good horror.

Anyway.

I like social deduction games. I like hidden traitor games. The problem is that being a traitor or not is usually preordained by the game. I always wanted that to be a human element. I think that to disagree and turn on each other is a very human thing. I want the player or players to choose to betray the group and feel the consequences of doing so. In the end, I think that the best kind of horror that I can offer is the fear of human nature. Of each other.

But fear is meaningless without a counterpart. Dread is meaningless without hope. Dread is the terror of the future. The fear of things yet to happen. Horror is less sublime. Horror is disgust and rejection in the face of things that are happening. But the things that actually do happen are rarely on par with what our imaginations can come up with. The fear of when a player will turn.

But betrayal rarely feels like what it is to the betrayer. It’s more often than not a justified inevitability of consequence.

I want them to feel in over their heads. I want them to feel that sacrifices will have to be made and that they will have to pull the gun. That luck eventually runs out. That someone will probably have to bite the dust and be damned.

#1 Emotion
#2 Essential Experience