Gameful Wording

Handwritten notes from a game designer/writer.
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Digital Eurogame Equivalency

A little while ago, I made an effort to start playing Dota 2. This was initially a difficult decision for me, because:

  1. I generally don’t like playing competitive online games;
  2. It seemed incredibly obtuse;
  3. I had tried the initial DotA WarCraft 3 mod years ago, and disliked it.

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It was an interview with Brad Muir that made me consider giving it a go. This was just off the back of supporting Massive Chalice, and I wanted to hear why this excellent designer from Double Fine, as well as the Creative Lead of The Walking Dead, were so into this non-story game.

Fast forward a couple of weeks later, listening to the Thumbs and Greg Kasavin and a bunch of other designers whose work I admire, watching the International 3, playing a bunch of bot matches, and I finally figured out what it was.

Dota 2 is the eurogame of video games.

The fundamental gameplay loop is so tight, the core experience so rewarding, that the context of your actions - that is, the story - doesn’t need to matter. At its heart, Dota 2 is a game about economies, wrapped up in sparkly fantasy-themed team-fighting feedback.

The fights are exciting, but the flow of the game is about mastering your economy and your impact on the opponent’s. So much of the high level play of the game is predicating on stacking the resource systems in your favour.

It’s not really about the fighting and the characters. That’s all just sleight-of-hand to hook you in and give you a basic lexicon to talk with. What a victory in Dota comes down to is how much of an impact you can have on the economies running in the background.

The same as eurogames use their theme as light contextual wrappers and mnemonics instead of as integrated narrative context, Dota 2 uses its characters and visual theme as an excuse - a masterly crafted excuse; but an excuse, nonetheless - that wraps up an incredibly tight gameplay system. It rewards mastery and promotes role specialisation, and honors its champions with unmatched status in a dedicated, fervent community.

When your game is that rewarding, you don’t need a coherent story to sell it, to make sense of it. You just play it and enjoy it.

I’ve stopped playing Dota since, as I need to use my gaming time to play more than just one game to maintain my literacy. But there’s still always the little tug - the “just one more match!” - that runs through my head each time I boot up Steam.

One day, Elder Titan, we’ll manage the safe lane again.

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How I Playtest

Here’s a scenario that should be familiar to most designers;

You’re playtesting a game that is ‘mid-way’ there; the core of it is good, but there’s still some systems/mechanics to iron out. Your playtesting group appreciates this, and can see the aspirations of the game despite its flaws. Once the dust has settled, overall, the playtest was a success.

The feedback you get around the table is good. Some things worked. Some things didn’t. You get a couple of “it would be cool if” statements, which you take note of (it’s always a good idea to find out what a player wants to do).

Then you get the sour note.

"I would change [mechanic], because [reasons]."

Now, it could be the playtester’s suggestion is really good. Or it could be a horrible, game-breaking tragedy. Most likely it’ll sit somewhere in the middle - theoretically good, but with some changes required to fit the already designed systems.

Doesn’t matter. It’s still bad manners.

What a suggestion like that does is take away the designer’s option to solve the problem themselves.

Now, I’m not saying designers should be precious about their games, only harkening faithful inspirations from their creative muses - barf! They will of course take ideas and thoughts from playtests and implement them.

But how the designer solves their design problem will be unique to that individual designer; if the playtester does that job for them, it’s the players who will ultimately miss out on a game that is fundamentally created from the designer’s creativity.

It could be the designer will shoot ideas around the table right there. It could be the designer will want to take the data back to their workshop and tinker with it for their solution.

Either way, don’t do their creative work for them.

Here’s how I playtest someone else’s game:

1) Put my player’s hat over my designer’s hat. I won’t be able to remove the designer part of me that looks at the systems underneath, but I want to experience the game mostly as a player. The better the game is, the easier this is to do!

2) Push the game as far as I can while keeping other players involved. Breaking a game is vital to making it strong, but breaking it at the expense of other players isn’t helping anyone in that playtest. Let the other players go through, then talk to the designer afterwards and say “I wanted to do this, but it felt like it was going to ruin the session.” Offer to replicate the bug or dominant strategy, either at the table, or in their own time (you’ll perhaps save the designer some embarrassment in the process!).

3) Be honest, fair, and considerate. Telling the designer what they want to hear might make you a friend, but it won’t make a good game. At the same time, remember you’re dealing with a human being who is already going to be feeling uncomfortable. Be polite with your feedback. Learn to give real constructive criticism (hint: it’s not an excuse for blunt disapproval). If it’s difficult to find a constructive place to start, perhaps admit to both the designer and yourself that it’s not the game for you, which can be just as productive as any other playtest outcome!

4) Provide feedback in gut reactions and ambitions. Don’t make design suggestions. Instead, provide the designer the feedback that leads to the problems you encountered. What felt powerful? What felt thematically incorrect? What was difficult, or confusing? Provide more questions, not answers.

Now, having said all this, some designers will be all, “Gimme everything you got” when they sit for a playtest. If the designer gives you free reign for suggestions, then go nuts. There are a lot of folks who I’ll happily take all of their advice, because they’ve been where I haven’t.

But until someone asks for my designer input, all they will get from me is my player thoughts.

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One million is as useless as nothing if ultimately you cannot deliver on the promise that you have made to that audience.

—American McGee, with some important words about crowdfunding.

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Non-linear as form, non-linear as content

As early as my original discussions with Mr Deceptikong about Grand City, I’ve had to talk about non-linear narratives in fairly hand-wavey terms. In the same breath, I could end up talking about movies, games, books and dessert buffets.

The problem here stems from talking about non-linear both as the form of a story, and the content of a story.

For instance: Pulp Fiction is a brilliant non-linear movie, a portmanteau of fractured stories with little regard for chronology except to fit the whim of Mr Tarantino. The experience of watching the story, though - that is, the single, 154 minute feature film watched from start to finish - is linear.

On the other hand, Mass Effect is an amazing cinematic trilogy that tells a linear story, from the start of Commander Shepherd’s initiation into the Spectres, all the way through to his encounter with the chid-god of Citadel. But the player makes many choices throughout the trilogy’s unfolding, all of which can drastically alter the world and scenarios that Commander Shepherd lives in.

So which is the non-linear piece of fiction, and which isn’t?

Internally, I’m developing my own vocabulary to help sort this out.

The story of a piece of work is the authored content, or WHAT it is that is interacted with.
The narrative of a piece of work is the experience, or HOW it is interacted with.

With these definitions in mind, I would say that Pulp Fiction is a non-linear story in a linear narrative; and conversely Mass Effect is a linear story with a non-linear narrative.

Perhaps semantics for many people, but for me, this definition has helped internally structure further thoughts into how non-linear storytelling can work now, and might work in the future!

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Board Game Resources

In the course of managing and moderating the Indie Board Game panel, I managed to collect a nice list of resources I’d found useful throughout my board game design adventures to date. Following is a short list: by no means even close to exhaustive, but a plan of first landing, the tumultuous storming of the beaches of board game creation for the first-time designer.

Design
Jesse Schell, The Art of Game Design - http://artofgamedesign.com/
Game Design Round Table - http://thegamedesignroundtable.com/
Daniel Solis, re: the Playtest Hangover - http://danielsolisblog.blogspot.com.au/2013/07/advice-for-playtest-hangover.html
Cardboard Edison - http://cardboardedison.tumblr.com/
Hyperbole Games - http://hyperbolegames.com/blog/
Board Game Geek - http://boardgamegeek.com/
Dan Cook, Lost Garden - http://www.lostgarden.com

Manufacture and Distribution
The Game Crafter - https://www.thegamecrafter.com/
Panda Game Manufacturing - http://pandagm.com/
Game Salute - http://gamesalute.com/
DriveThru Cards - http://www.drivethrucards.com/
Pozible - http://www.pozible.com/
Kickstarter - http://www.kickstarter.com/

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