Category: Games

I write about games! I write a LOT about games! Everything I do about games is here, in this tab, in some way.

Hunter’s Dreams – Trick Weapons, Part 1

I started work on Hunter’s Dream back in January, with the basic idea being a way to play a Bloodborne style game set using 4th Edition D&D. The reasons are pretty easy to grapple with – starting with ‘I like it’ and moving on to ‘Bloodborne’s play experience is a tactical game of resource expenditure, not a story game of improvisation.’

Still, 4th edition D&D is a game of systems, and that means when you want to put something in the systems, you want to put in some rules. In Bloodborne, the trick weapons are a big part of the tactical experience, and they make the game feel that particular steampunky way. How then, do we bring that feeling into 4th ed D&D.

When looking at implementing these trick weapons in 4E, we want to consider what they do and how they do it. That sounds like basic stuff, but those questions are going to illustrate the difference between the two types of games and how I can make something that feels right in a different game.

Trick weapons in Bloodborne are weapons; you use them to attack opponents, destroy objects, and occasionally interact with environments in surprising ways – think about the times you cut a rope or knock down a hanging treasure. Broadly speaking though, the trick weapons are weapons, which you use to hurt people.

When you use them, you can change them from one form to another. Now here is where we can get a bit McLuahnish, and point out that medium and messages intertwine. See, Bloodborne is a videogame, and you play it with a controller. That controller has a number of buttons, and you, as a player, are expected to track maybe about seven to eight of those buttons at a time in combat. That means any mechanic you introduce, if it’s going to happen in combat, needs a button, and it needs a reliable button, because this combat is pretty high stakes. The game design is also what I call ‘fixed animation’ length – that is, when you commit to an action, you’re often stuck with it, and unlikely to be able to assert control over it along the way.

Following that, then, is that the trick weapons need to be weapons where your ‘trick’ doesn’t take a lot of buttons or fine customising. If you do those things, it’d take more time, and that might make it too inconvenient. With only limited inputs, then, the Bloodborne trick weapons are very binary. They’re either ‘on’ or ‘off’ – and you can swap them between one thing or the other in-combat. There are a few oddballs, of course, but generally, these weapons exist in form A or B, and in combat, shifting from A to B or vice versa results in a special attack.

Most of these weapons change in ways that reflect the technology of the setting. For some, the change is a big physical object shift; for others it’s turning on a special ability for the next hit. The weapons can’t be ‘normal’ weapons, even if they mostly resemble them – swords that become hammers, axes that become polearms, that kind of thing.

These two states want to be qualitatively different, in the context of Bloodborne; you’ll sometimes get different damage types, different speeds of attack, and different reach. In this game, those are very small spaces. Attack speed can be fractions of a second; Reach can be important down to similarly small units of distance.

To summarise:

  • Bloodborne trick weapons are weapons
    • They’re primarily used to hurt people and interact with the environment
  • The trick of Bloodborne trick weapons is simple to use
    • This differentiates them from conventional weapons
    • There’s still room for mastery
  • These weapons vary in how they attack
    • Reach
    • Speed
    • Damage
    • Special effects

This is our outline, the parameters we want to consider. Next time we’ll look at the challenges of setting this up in 4ed D&D.

MTG: Designing Tokens

Here’s a thing I’m working on.

If you play Magic: The Gathering, you’ll know that some cards create tokens – which are kind of cards that aren’t cards. Basically, a token is a thing that a card can create that isn’t represented by a card. If you don’t know Magic, this is probably a bit boring. Feel free to go elsewhere.

Anyway!

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Nintendon’t Come To Europe

It’s an American internet, really. If you talk about videogames of a retro vintage, it’s taken as a given you’re going to talk about videogames made by Nintendo, for Nintendo platforms. I’ve been told it extends so far that you don’t say ‘Playing Videogames,’ if you speak to the 90s – you say ‘Playing Nintendo.’

I didn’t see a Super Nintendo in someone’s house until I was an adult, and it was a collectable. Yet my cousin, and a few people I knew from around school had, or rented, a Sega platform.

In case this is literally your first experience here on the blog: Hi! I’m Australian. This is about my youth in Australia. But it’s also about how the assumptions we use when we talk about media often shows things about who we are as media consumers.

Nintendo dominated North America throughout the 80s and 90s, winning what was at the time considered ‘The Console Wars’ against their rival Sega. Then in the early 00s, there really wasn’t a Sega to oppose, as the Saturn followed by the Dreamcast failed and the company making them started to disassemble its manufacturing base, moving into full-time production of bad Sonic the Hedgehog spin-offs and sequels. Thing is, that narrative is how things were In America.

Here in Australia, Sega was the thing you got. Sega sold better in Europe, too, and distributed widely there. Part of what helped Sega do well was the video rental network they were connected to – this is an ad from almost every VHS I remembered watching, distributed from every Video EZY I checked. Renting a Master System or Mega Drive was surprisingly cheap if you could stump the bond (and I could not and never did). This is why it’s very common for Australians of this age to mispronounce ‘Sega’ – because the ads all pronounce it wrong too!

In Latin America, it’s even weirder. Sega made deals to manufacture Sega equipment in Brazil, and that means that for Brazilians, Master Systems were really cheap. What’s more, that deal didn’t limit itself to the production that Sega was doing – which means that Brazil’s been making Sega Master Systems since – well, since the 80s. As technology has moved on, with the same fundamental architecture, what’s happened is that the Master System (a really good console!) has been instead getting smaller and more convenient.

Mailing and distributing these units from Brazil is apparently ferociously expensive – Brazil’s tariffs on entertainment goods are, I’m told, eyewatering, and piracy in the country is rife on anything that can run Linux. Still, it’s this fascinating little story of a place where not only did Nintendo not win the console war, the company they thought they’d defeated has lived on beyond them.

Is this news to anyone? No, not really. Most Americans I know are aware of these things. But what’s fascinating is that there are a number of Americans who don’t – and they’re always surprised to learn that the history of trade and distribution of videogames just wasn’t universal.

Game Pile: Exalted: The Infernals

First things first, before we go anywhere.

Content Warning

The gamebook I’m going to discuss here is shot through it with a bunch of stuff that’s just going to fall under the category of what I call ‘content-warningy.’ The Infernals is a book marinated in a needless ‘edgy’ nastiness that means a perfectly normal seeming paragraph about negotiating for barley can break out with a random reference to sexual assault.

It’s not even a single enclosed space – no singular concept, no page section. This isn’t like there’s one super horrible character, or one terrible scene. It’s worse than that, it’s that throughout this entire guidebook, there is a non-stop constant and oppressive threat that the book will bring up something unnecessary and gross, mistaking mentioning taboo things as wielding them well.

I have beeves about this book and yet also loves, but I want to warn you against reading it at random, because in its attempts to be horrifying and edgy with its ‘villainous’ content, there’s a lot of this book you kind of have to ignore. Normally, I’ll warn you about a thing, or a type of thing in a work, but in this case, I just want you to know up front I don’t think you should read this book. As a general rule.

I will not be talking about that stuff, except in a broad sense to criticise the thoughtless way this book uses these subject matters. I’m not going to trot out specific examples of things just to criticise them, but I am going to mention:

  • Abuse and Abusers
  • Self-Harm
  • Sexual Assault spoken about callously
  • Mental health and identity issues
  • Anger and revenge
  • Public executions

If you want to go elsewhere today, I am okay with that. Here, go somewhere else, look at something nice.

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MGP: Imbuing Ownership

Starting January 2016, I made a game or more a month for the whole year. I continued this until 2018, creating a corpus of 39 card or board games, including Looking For Group, Senpai Notice Me, and Dog Bear. Starting in 2019, I wanted to write about this experience, and advice I gained from doing it for you. Articles about the MGP are about that experience, the Monthly Game Project.

When I talk about my games there tends to be a split in game types, which tends to – but not always – lie along a price line. There are $10 games, which are made with a tiny number of cards, less art, and often a tight little system to play with. Some examples are Senpai Notice Me! and You Can’t Win, which are both excellent games I’m very happy with for how much they do with how little they’ve got room for. These games are almost like a unicycle, a tiny tight little system, and they’re mostly intermediary games, games that you play between other things. There are exceptions – The Botch, for example, is what I consider a mid-size game for its time and strategic investment, and Chin Music is a $15 game that nonetheless is playable with seven year olds, with almost no strategic depth or world-building.

The point is, that these games, we’ll call them the single wheel games, tend to be kind of easy to make, they tend to be a bit less demanding, and they tend to be faster to make. The games that take more time tend to have fewer mistakes in them that I think of as big. It’s easy for me to point out the problems of D-73C7 but it’s a tiny bit harder to talk about the problems in the games I think of as ‘medium,’ the games where I have stamped my name and a bit of my lore and my friends.

Burning Daylight is a game I love.

It’s a good game.

But I hate, hate, hate, how much better it could be.

If you haven’t seen this game, it’s basically a Hand Management game. You pick a handful of cards that represent your gang, then you send those gang members out to do missions, each one capable of doing something on their own, and then after they go out, they do something, then they come home. You can send them out as a group, and if you do, they can do a mission.

There’s a ton of stuff that’s just a little bit awkward about this game. The way injury works, the way the track progresses – players tend to want to move their characters differently to the way the rules work, which suggests that the rules I designed around were bad, and I should have been willing to pull them back. I still tangle with the feeling myself, if I should revisit the game entirely, strip back the rules, and redo a bunch of the cards? Maybe?

But that’s not the important thing. Those are small things, they are ways to make a better game out of the good game. There’s a fatal flaw in Burning Daylight, or rather, an overwhelming flaw that bothers the hell out of me, and it’s at the start of the game, you have to pick your gang members. You pick five cards and those cards are your gang. They’re yours.

When you first pick the game up, you have no idea what those gang members do, how they interact with one another, if they’re good, or what kind of mix of them you want.

I filled these cards with as much personality as I could, I strived to make it so that you could like this cast of gangsters, and then I created potential pitfalls for players who made bad choices. Which sucks, it’s such a bad decision.

If you pick a good, mixed team, and if you know how some of the characters work together, this game can be fun, but at that point, you’re not creating your gang for this game, you’re picking up a gang. I gave players a way to take ownership of the game in some way, and then I made it so they could do that wrong and that drives me batty every time I think about it.

Burning Daylight took me months to make. I bought stock art I loved, I edited and refined it, like the art I use for Sector 86. I live-tweeted so many stages of the design process; there was a time where it was actually strongly reminsicent of Arctic Scavengers (and … well… maybe), another time it was almost a box game with tokens and a bag buying system. The game that came out is full of lore I like, characters I love and it looks great…

… and I keep gnawing away at the ways I could make it better.

Doom’s Paratext

You know what, I haven’t taken a cheap pop at Doom in a few months, let’s go into the rich well of a game that my dad has never stopped playing since 1994.

Okay, I’ve talked about text and paratext, in the past. The basic idea is that there’s stuff in the work, and that’s text, and then there’s stuff in the work surrounding the work, and that’s paratext. An example would be how the fact that a wizard named Dumbledore exists is text to the Harry Potter books, but that he just went to town on Wizard Hitler’s cock is part of the supplementary text to that from JK Rowling, and that surrounding commentary is a form of paratext.

And let’s make it clear: Your gentle loving grandpa figure Dumbledore absolutely fucked Wizard Hitler.

Anyway, the distinction is between what counts as text versus what counts as paratext is generally centered around a specific way of experiencing a work. A movie that adapts a book can be seen as paratext to that book, but it can also be seen as its own text. The book can be seen as paratext to the movie, too. A book and a movie, though, are somewhat equal in their textual weight (except to extreme cinephiles and bibliophiles, who are both pretty silly).

What though, about a game?

People consider the reading material that comes with games as pretty secondary. Heck, superfluous. Back in the day, they were text file that came with readers, and you could definitionally not read the text file while you were playing the game. It seems pretty easy then to assess the game as the text, and there’s a lot of people who will stand firmly by the idea that the play of a game is the important thing (hullo, ludology-narratology debate).

Thing is, though, there are a lot of games that have well-established, well known ‘stories’ where the story as we understand it appears not in the game, but in a booklet that comes with the game, or a text file or even ordering info that comes with the game. Particularly, to use a high profile example, Doom is a videogame that has almost no description of its story in the game itself. There’s nothing you’d consider establishing – it just drops you into the game in Knee Deep In the Dead and, that’s it. The idea that you’re a Space Marine, that you’re deployed on Mars for killing a superior officer (pfft), that you’re the last person left after a teleporter accident, the integral identity of how Doom‘s story works, that’s all in the manual.

This isn’t atypical though.

Most videogames don’t have the room, not back then, to properly show you their story in play. It just takes too long. Lots of the time, you don’t even know what your goal is until you reach it!

Anyway, Doom’s plot is Paratext and Dumbledore sucks Hitler dick.

Game Pile: Exalted

Exalted is a tabletop roleplaying game of mythic fantasy that positioned itself as the counterpoint to Dungeons and Dragons 3rd edition, made first by White Wolf and later by Onyx Path. Onyx Path have faithfully carried on the legacy of White Wolf’s work, and by that, I mean, Exalted started out bad and has maintained being bad.

Bad is a hollow word for media criticism, I know, but it’s good to set a tone. I want you to  bear that in mind, because there’s going to be a lot of things that make this game sound awesome. This game has a faction of communist revolutionary furries who are gay for the moon. See? Right there, that’s something that’s either awful (kinda) or amazing (also, kinda).

This presents part of the problem of discussing Exalted: A list of things in Exalted sounds like praise for it! In a way, that’s amazing! It’s got a sentient stealth bomber that lives in a volcano! See? Just like that, you react with what and want to know more!

Plus, there will be pretty pictures, because Exalted has always employed some excellent artists who sometimes do amazing work, and if Bioshock Infinite has taught us anything, it’s that really excellent aesthetics can make it very easy for people to take you seriously even if your game is actually really bad.

Hold to that truth. No matter what it sounds like I’m saying, I’m also saying that Exalted is bad.

Exalted is amazing.

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MTG: It’s Not Gacha

I try not to shoot from the hip on matters like these.

I try not, generally speaking, to do long-form articles about important topics where the subject matter is high impact and there are well-intentioned people who look uninformed to me. It’s a sure-fire way of wading into a complex situation where I contribute no actual value, just noise.

Plus, this is the intersection of Magic: the Gathering, game development, and human incentive systems, which I’m sorry to say I’m rapidly doing things that make me kind of expert on, even if I shy from being considered an expert. There’s a whole gulf of information between where I sit and where a lot of other voices on the matter sit, which can make me feel like I’m either talking over them (because they don’t know what they’re talking about, and don’t realise that) or that I’m getting into an extremely contentious fight (because they know what they’re talking about, and are presenting falsehoods and do not care).

Still, it’s April, it’s my month, you’re here on my blog so sit down, shut up, and learn why every time people compare Gacha to Magic: the Gathering I roll my eyes so hard it makes my skull ache.

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Game (Barriers, Readings, Reviews)

Sometimes I’m cautious about using the term game review when I talk about games in Game Pile. We’re not usually sure what a review of a game is, in language terms, except when people are talking very specifically about games as consumer product getting consumer guidance.

I don’t do that though – I mean, I do account for the consumer product of the games I talk about. Often I’ll offer reasons why you might like a game, or things about that game that are good guidance for when you buy it. That’s not really the primary way I talk about games, though.

One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot is how when I write about a game’s play experience, it can be viewed as autoethnography, but that’s a really obscure term and it makes me sound like I’m distancing myself from everyday talksy-about-gamesy people. There’s a barrier put in place when you use academic language, and while I want to connect non-academic people to concepts they may understand and be able to use from academia, if I do it by teaching them just plain jargon, I feel like I’m mostly teaching people unuseful things they won’t use. Even if I’m doing autoethnography, that doesn’t mean saying this is an autoethnographic survey of this game is just alienating as hell.

I’ve toyed with calling them readings, the way that that term gets used in both critical media and academia. This is my reading of this game, for example. That’s interesting because it presents my take as a sort of unified set of details that are meant to harmonise together. That would actually ask for me to do things differently, too, though, if I wanted to mimic a reading. Readings are great if you have a particular definitional vision of a work, too, where you want to present a version of events where this is what I think happened, or sometimes to frame it as if this happened, here’s an idea for what that means. I do readings sometimes – my take on Voltron is a reading, for example.

Most of the time, I don’t do readings of games. I tend to look at them in terms of design, or how they’re made, or the plot, or even single beats in the plot. Games tend to be kind of bigger than other media, it means there’s a lot of room to write about a lot of things when you write about a game. Some of my game articles are readings but that’s not to say that’s what I do.

And thus we loop around this thought, again and again, and again. What are they, if not reviews? These are thoughts and writing spurred by the retrospective consideration of the game, too. They are literally my thoughts upon review of the game.

I guess in the end, while this point of language bothers me just a shade, it’s a point I’m trying to get over. The idea that these things aren’t reviews because they’re not consumer examinations or because they’re focused on story or design is to cede the entirety of review to a glorified price guide.

Therefore, my articles about videogames, are game reviews.

Fight me, my own brain.

D&D Memories: Shen Marrowick

We do this these days, right?

We talk about our D&D Characters?

Okay.

I am a firm believer in the idea that when you present a character to the players at the table, they need a handle on the character. They need to be able to grasp the character quickly so it’s often best to start with a basic archetype or story point. You want to occupy the space in the story, you don’t want to have to explain that place you want in the story.

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Caillois and Rosewater

This is about Magic: The Gathering, but it’s not.

It’s about Academic reading, but it’s not.

In Roger Caillois’ book Man, Play and Games, he describes a bunch of concepts that make a case for how games are important, what they do, what they mean for culture, all that good stuff that we can use in game studies. In this, he laid out his notion of both a sliding scale between two points for the way games work then he describes four types of ways players engage with games.

Mark Rosewater, the head designer for Magic: The Gathering, has talked about types of players and who they design cards for in terms of a sliding scale between two points for the things that appeal to players, and then describes three types of ways players engage with the game.

The sliding scale in Caillois’ work is between ludic games and paidic games. Ludic games are about clearly defined rules. The more tightly defined rules are, the more likely it’s ludic. Chess is very ludic, for example. Paidic games are about freedom of play, the capacity to create rules or subsystems or discard rules as you play. Improv games, for example, are very paidic.

In Rosewater’s work, he describes the idea of players caring about the feel and lore of the cards they play with (an idea first positioned by Matt Cavotta), and the players who care intensely about the rules of the game state and don’t care about that creative space. These are described as Vorthos and Melvin.

In Caillois’ model, his four types describe games in terms of them having attributes that give people reason to play:

  • agon, games of competition
  • alea, games of chance
  • ilinx, games of vertigo
  • mimicry, games of impersonation

Rosewater’s model describes three types of players, and why they play:

  • Timmy/Tammy, who wants to feel something
  • Johnny/Janey, who wants to express something
  • Spike, who wants to achieve something

Now, these don’t directly map onto one another; it’s hard to see how ilinx connects to the Tammy/Janey/Spike model. I personally feel that it works well as Janey’s thing, where flipping a card and rolling a dice and seeing what your opponent can do about it is a feeling of being disconnected and helpless that you can enjoy. But that’s fine, it’s a narrow tip to a broader pen.

Also, Janet Murray in Hamlet on the Holodeck points out there’s a fifth type of play that Caillois doesn’t consider – the player who plays to enjoy the idea of the rules interacting. That rules that nest and set against one another in a satisfying way offer enough of a reason to play.

I’ve asked the crew at Wizards if Caillois informed their vision of the psychographics, and as of this writing I haven’t received an answer. Informed by their history, I think they devised their player psychographics independently, and the Rosewater model is missing some basic components.

These are two very good ways to look at game design; they both fundamentally want to focus on why someone plays, with Caillois framing it in terms of big, cultural ideas and Rosewater framing it as the choices of an individual’s feelings. Caillois (and Murray) take into account another two different ways to play, two more ways you can make games and things you can implement in games that people engage with.

One of the reasons we look at Caillois’ model is because, well, he was a French academic, and he wrote about a topic, and other people wrote about it subsequently. At the same time, though, Caillois’ ideas include a lot of super gross colonialism. His whole vision of cultures that aren’t western European talks about them condescendingly, the notion that their destiny was to be conquered or colonised, because of the games they play. The Rosewater model, on the other hand, is a living games text, expressed not in an academic book written by one person, but algorithmically sorted by a game that’s been non-stop produced for twenty-five years.

It’s not that the Rosewater model is better, I just feel it’s a bit easier to share. I don’t need to assign it one or more Yikes.

Is this some bold position, ‘we should use Rosewater instead of Caillois’? Nah. Is it some brilliant academic insight, ‘MTG R&D bites on Caillois’? God no.

It is still interesting.

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Making Hook Line Sinker

Hey, check this out.

This is what I call the cover card for our game Hook, Line & Sinker. At the time of writing this, I’m still testing this game, but I like this aesthetic for the game, and unless it tests badly for use, it’s probably going to stay this way.

I made this. This is my art. I’m really happy with how it looks, and I figured I’d like to show the process I went through to make this card, this specific card. Below the fold, then, is a step-by-step process of showing how I made this, and this is very close to my first look. This was all done with like, basic tools that you can find in most every graphics program.

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The Tail of Spite

Back in 2018, Dinesh Vatvani, a python programmer, took a set of analytic tools to the BoardgameGeek top 100. I have said some mean things about BoardgameGeek in the past, like how it’s a site that ‘loves lists as much as it hates women’ or ‘looks like an android’s uterus’ or ‘has a community that are shockingly comfortable with being the worst kind of racists,’ but one thing it’s generally regarded as being pretty solid at is presenting to a general audience a lot of data about whether or not a game might be, in some vague way, ‘good.’ It’s got a ranking system, you see, and that ranking system – well, it’s a system. Systems are right, aren’t they? It’s like algorithms.

The hypothetical idea is that BoardgameGeek, by aggregating a large number of opinions, this analysis avoids having a ‘bias’ and is instead presenting a kind of objective data.

Now, obviously, this kind of analysis is going to be as biased as any self-selecting group, and Dinesh’s analysis seeks to tease out a number of different factors. The full article is definitely worth a read, but in this, he introduces something extremely interesting, which he dubs the Tail of Spite.

The Tail of Spite is the way that:

A curious feature of the graph above is the tail of games of low complexity and low ratings at the bottom left of the plot. This “tail of spite” consists of relatively old mass-appeal games. Every single game in the tail of spite was released pre-1980, with many being considerably older than that. The games that form the tail of spite are shown in the table below:

What fascinates me about this tail of spite is that these are games that, with some degree of objectivity, seem to be successful. Some of them aren’t even exploitative like Monopoly – I mean who owns Tic Tac Toe? Who’s getting rich off kids knowing how to make that game on their notepaper. No, these games are games with wide-spread mainstream appeal, that do their jobs, are largely not broken and rarely poorly produced, but they’re extremely well known. They are not so much rated as they are resented.

I think this idea, that of a ‘tail of spite’ is a useful one to have. Your biases won’t just express in over-rating the things you like – you will also be inclined towards being more harsh on things you have personal distaste for.

Anyway, Monopoly sucks.

 

Game Pile: Keen Dreams

Oh hey, a Game Pile about a Commander Keen game! We’ve done that before! Twice!

And right now, it’s amazingly actually timely, kind of, because unlike how I wrote about Wonder Boy 3 just in time for the announcement of the remake, I had this plan lined up just as Keen Dreams dropped on the Switch.

On the Switch.

What the hell?

Who was seeing that coming!?

Released in 1991 under the Softdisk label, Keen Dreams marked a turning point in Commander Keen design. The first Keens were made as an exercise in smooth scrolling video on a PC – an attempt to replicate the movement of Mario Bros kind of games, and which wound up being – you know what, just go read Masters of Doom by David Kushner (no relation to that one) and learn about the arc that takes from Commander Keen and Softdisk to literally the entire modern landscape dominated by team-based multiplayer shooter games. Suffice to say this is legitimately one of the stepping stones on that path.

If I was a fairer writer, I’d tak about Commander Keen 3: Keen Must Die!, and I guess, here, bonus Game Pile: Keen Must Die is an afterthought of a game and makes the moral weirdness I mentioned about Commander Keen 2 both front-and-centre and obvious. Like it’s pretty much impossible to finish Commander Keen 3 without shooting someone’s mum, which is pretty bleak as a story beat to put in a videogame.

Keen Dreams is a… decent game. It’s fine. It’s alright. It’s definitely weaker than Keen 4 and a little bit better than Keen 3. There’s less game here than you’d think, less spectacle, less fun exploration, and there was a point where this game was entirely available for free, but it’s certainly worth more than nothing.

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Making Fun: Years Later

Starting in November 2017, I decided that, with enough attempts made to explore methods of how, that I would start uploading videos to Youtube. I decided to build on my then-recently-finished Honours thesis as an experiment in seeing what I could create that could suit a rapid-fire fast-talking Youtube content form, and as a direct result, my first video series, Making Fun was made.

It’s been a bit over a full year now, and I thought I’d spend some time to look at these videos and see what I thought of them, what lessons I had learned, and what lessons I would recommend.

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Crokinole And Doing Just Enough

Few things are going to go  so well as to make broad, sweeping statements about what you can derive from a culture from observing its games. Roger Caillois offered that idea, and he was a shocking all-purpose super-racist, like a Voltron of racism, bolting together orientalism and exoticism and a kind of intellectual academia that formed The Head(lessness).

Caillois was so convinced that the destiny of cultures could be seen in the games they played that he dedicated a book to the task, a book that I have had gleeful fun making fun of lately but which also has some terms that we’ve kind of gotten very used to using, terms like ludic and paidic in terms of game design. His model of games as forms of engagement was to see them in terms of how people got involved with them and what that meant they got out of them, and then from that, to try and draw broad, elaborate strokes about what this meant for cultures that just happened to align with western Europeans and mostly French academics just being the best people, and clowns were evil.

Now I don’t think that you can’t draw some conclusions about cultures and their games, particularly in that when I think about Canada and games, the three that spring to mind are curling, crokinole, and ice hockey, and of those games, two require you to have a ready supply of ice in fairly large spaces. When a game can be played with commonly available stuff in common spaces, and doesn’t need a lot of speciality equipment, it becomes more likely that people will play it, and it can spread through a culture more readily. There isn’t a big curling scene here in Australia, a place that hasn’t had common ground ice in its capital cities or residential areas since those places ever existed. It’s kind of doable to look at Canadian games and think ‘the attributes of Canada as a physical space helps to encourage these games.’

It’s not like my opinions of games is coming from a space of serious expertise, either; Canada is a really big country, and those three games are trying to represent four hundred years of history across literally the second largest country in the world. The game of ear pulling has been played in Canada for literally three millenia and Ice Hockey is relatively recent by comparison.

Still, when I look at these three games, something that strikes me about them all that they have in common is that these three games are not about doing something to the limit of one’s ability. They’re all about, or have rules to encourage, you to do just enough.

This isn’t unique! After all, games like bowls and blackjack are also games about not doing too much but neither of those games are about dealing with the dynamic, slippery surface of ice, or the crokinole board and its skiddy polish.

Is there more to this? Is it a secret insight into Canadian culture?

Have I cracked some Cailloisian code?

No.

It’s just a coincidence. An interesting coincidence, but a coincidence.

But it’s fun, sometimes, to notice these things, and think about how you might do things differently.

Top Dog

Games are filled with opportunity for discovery. When you’re exploring a device with low stakes, you are in that time, playing with it – seeing the boundaries of what it allows. It is the play of a gear, more than the play of an actor. Play is how we find the limits of things.

Okay, rewind. A story. A story of a specific thing in a specific place.

Back in the day, in City of Heroes, when you first made a character, you’d complete a short little tutorial, and be dropped in front of the steps of the Atlas Statue in Atlas Park. It looked like this.

It’s a common thing for players to talk about, the first moment the got a flight-related travel power.  It was usually hover, but sometimes it was a jetpack. However you did it, when new players gained the ability to leave the ground, one of the most common things they’d do is use that power to fly up to the top of the Atlas Statue and look at what was there.

What was up there was an exploration badge.

These badges were a bit like achievements. You could put a badge on your character and it’d display under your name. More important than what this badge could do, though, is what this badge did.

When you explore, one of the most disappointing things to find is nothing. I have memories of struggling up mountains in World of Warcraft and New Vegas and finding blank textures and no reaction to my presence, a sign that I hadn’t actually achieved something difficult but just had done something the developers had never expected. That taught me to stop trying those things, to stick to the path, to give up on exploration and excitement. I turned the gear all the way in one direction, and the game didn’t react well to it, suggesting I never do that again.

In City of Heroes, you tried something, and the game found you when you got there, and said hey, yeah. This kind of thing works.

The Top Dog badge encouraged players from the earliest point to always look on top of things, around things, to think in terms of what counts as worth exploring. It was a good idea, and I think that it rewarded players for being playful with the world.

Game Pile: Braid

Braid, the 2008 videogame by Jonathan Blow, widely heralded as the first Xbox Arcade indie game and the dawn of a new era of artistic expression in videogames and the newly democratised marketplace, is in an uncited claim on its Wikipedia page, in contention as ‘one of the best videogames of all time,’ which suggests that this little indie game is very important and smart and deep, like other best videogames of all time on the wikipedia list, like Ninja Gaiden.

For obligatory game-as-game-context, Braid is a side-scrolling puzzle platformer game with your classic runny-jumpy-climby, a beautiful hand-painted art style and puzzles that focus on an engine that can do endless, smooth rewinding of every game entity all at once. This has a lot of clever design in it, and thanks to the endless rewinding, you can design the whole game around really challenging puzzles knowing you can always reset them and try again.

It’s decent.

It’s fine.

It’s regularly quite cheap, and it definitely isn’t overpriced.

Spoilers for Braid, ahead.

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Blocking out a Card

Hey, here’s a thing I was working on in February. You may have seen it on twitter.

Here’s a cut link because this is going to show full images of cards and those things are loooong. Oh and pre-emptively, these cards have been munged by Twitter because I could not be hecked to re-export these progress shots.

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Form Informs Function

I’m looking at this game, Yamatai.

It’s this big, bulky beast of cardboard, a real classic Euro of dear god, there are how many bits? At its root, it’s a game of laying paths and fulfilling economic requirements. In fact, you can almost punctuate Yamatai as a sentence with a lot of asterisks – you place boats* on a map* to fulfill goals* that earn money* to build structures* to earn victory points*. And every single * indicates a place where the game has a specifically designed system meant to make that particular action more complicated.

If you remember me talking about alignment systems as plumbing, then this is the kind of game where you work with a lot of plumbing to make it work. It isn’t a bad idea, most games are simple systems rendered difficult by complications after all, Bernard Suits and the willing overcoming of optional difficulties and what not, but anyway, in this game, there are these tiles that determine special game actions you can take and how fancy your faction is regarded, known as Specialists. They look like this: This is how they actually look. They have these names. The rulebooks specify what they do, but never who they are, and while we can talk for a bit about mechanics informing character, it does feel a bit like a swizz to turn these people into these tiles that represent actions. These people aren’t reduced to what the can do, they’re reduced to one action only, which is good for a big and complicated game that already has too many bits going on.

Why are they people, though?

These could be machines, or flags, or they could be brokered trade details (and maybe even decorated to look like them) or faction histories or – there are lots of things these tiles could be. They’re not. They’re people. They’re named like they’re people.

To spin this around to one of my own designs, I’m working on this small game (at the moment – it’s probably long done by the time this goes up) where there are only eighteen cards, and they each represent parts of a plan. What’s tripping me up at the moment, though, is the challenge of what verb form to put the card names in.

I’m not trying to bag on Yamatai (here) for reducing Asian People To Objects (again, here). I’m thinking about the ways we talk about mechanical objects and their purposes. How we choose them. How to make them consistant.

Janet Murray once expanded Caillois’ model of gameplay with its agon and alea and mimicry and ilinx and described a form that Caillois hadn’t considered, of rhythmos. Her idea was that some forms of rules satisfaction came from making rules that worked cleanly together as rules, and that helped drive gameplay. This is a very real effect, and one that you’ll notice if you miss it.

And so, here I am, up late, worrying away, like a beaver at a twig, thinking about conjugation and the card-tile non-people of Yamatai.

MTG: Tiny Cube

Let’s assume you’re familiar with Cube.

Okay, no wait, let’s not assume. The basics of Cube is that it’s a pool of cards and you draft them and play Magic: The Gathering with what you’ve drafted. An in-depth discussion can be read here.

Now, let’s assume you’re familiar with Winston Drafting.

Wait, no, that’s a bad idea. Winston Drafting is the idea of a format for drafting cards between a small number of players – two or three is the usual numbers. You Winston draft by slowly generating piles that become more and more desireable. You can read an in-depth discussion about that here.

Now, let’s talk about Tiny Cube.

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Examining 3 Wishes

If you’re bothered by seeing designers scrutinise other designer’s designs explicitly to change them then you might want to check out now. I personally advocate for this practice very hard, since it’s both important to demistify the lie that games spring out of the aether, but I know that some people are both more precious and more sensitive to the idea of ‘idea theft.’ Since I put a ton of my design work out there on this blog, you can probably guess that I don’t have that same fear.

In the simplest sense, what I’m doing here is play. I am playing with this game, with its design. It is more akin to the play of a gear than to the play of an actor, but it is still play.

This is an examination of how a game can give you ideas for another game, it’s not about things the designers ‘should’ have done, or things that they should have presciently known better about.

Onward!

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MGP: Children’s Games

Starting January 2016, I made a game or more a month for the whole year. I continued this until 2018, creating a corpus of 39 card or board games, including Looking For Group, Senpai Notice Me, and Dog Bear. Starting in 2019, I wanted to write about this experience, and advice I gained from doing it for you. Articles about the MGP are about that experience, the Monthly Game Project.

Making games for kids is a challenge.

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Meta Is Boring

I understand that not everyone partakes of media at the same pace. There are things that, for you, are brand new. Someone out there is experiencing, for the first time, a work that feels like Coyote Gospel, or their first time a webcomic literally leans on the panels of the comic. I know, no matter how much I may feel a thing, it doesn’t make it a universal rule. You are not, in any way, beholden to my tastes.

But god I find meta boring.

This shows up when you google image search ‘meta comic’ and ‘labelled for reuse.’ Bonus: The source explaining it is in Italian, so I have no idea about the context. The good news is, it doesn’t matter, because I’m recontextualising this work.

‘Meta’ is a memetic shorthand. It isn’t really about postmodern commentary, not really – the kind of people who ‘use meta’ are also the kind of people who dislike the word ‘postmodern’ or who dismiss the idea of postmodernism, often without necessarily understanding the term or its meaning. Meta is a particular kind of wisecracking too-cool, disaffection, and it’s often used in videogames and tabletop games as a sort of get-out clause for failures in their own fiction.

This isn’t to say I don’t like ‘very meta’ works. I after all, really enjoy Portal, which uses its deliberately puzzly structure to talk about how puzzle games work. Meta can be fun. What bothers me, though, is that there’s a lot of modern ‘meta’ work, especially in games, that cares more about using the meta-ness as a get-out clause for the fiction it wants to construct. Indie videogames are rife with videogames that want to draw your attention to the fact you’re playing a videogame…

And it’s so flipping boring.

If your world, if the story you’re telling me, isn’t interesting enough to keep my attention, maybe take it back to the workshop and go for another round or two? I’ve been thinking about this a lot, since I heard of the plot and structure of Glass, the movie, about how it’s a movie that’s mostly about being a screenwriter masquerading as a movie about being a supervillain.

Maybe the story doesn’t need to be clever, per se. Maybe you can learn a lot by making your story fun.

4th Edition’s Space Problem

Normally you’ll hear me be pretty positive about 4th Edition D&D. I’m a strident defender of the game, which is made easiest by a number of the complaints about the game being entirely fake. It’s easy to be a righteous defender of something against blatant lies.

Still, there are flaws with 4th Edition D&D, which shouldn’t be any kind of surprise and yet here we are. Let’s talk about one of them. Heck, let’s talk about a big problem, and it’s a problem that’s structural. It’s so structural it doesn’t even relate to a specific class, as much as it relates to the way that classes get made.

Classes take up too much space.

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Accent Bullshit

I’m a bit sore about accents.

One of the problems is that my accent is one of those ones that’s kind of definitively seen as a joke. You don’t hear an Australian accent, and when you do hear it, it is almost never done by an actual Australian. The most famous Australian actor in the world right now puts on an Olde English accent most of the time.

In part this conversation was spurred by Olly of PhilosophyTube, who is a perfectly fine chap and I don’t mean any disrepect by, but he recently did a video that was presented as a riff on ‘How I’d Fix [Franchise]’ videos, during which he did the whole thing in a very artificial American accent.

The purpose behind it was that this voice was both meant to be playing a character, and to help hook people into a way of viewing ‘the housing market’ as a thing that doesn’t actually do what it’s presented as doing. Plus it played within an existing Youtube genre of extremely tired, annoying fanfiction that’s just jam-packed full of extremely ordinary white guys. It was affect, right? That was the point. It wasn’t meant to sound good, so what’s the point?

The point is that the overwhelming thought I had, through the whole video, was not ‘Oh hey, clever use of the genre’ or ‘good point there, Olly me old chum, maybe we should eat the rich,’ but rather the much more constant ‘jesus christ this accent sucks.’

Which isn’t new, he’s done this before. He’s impersonated an Australian accent, For Hilarious Effect, which touches on one of my raw nerves.

I have some sympathy for voice actors on this front. After all, in the United States, the most common form of voice acting is the way that almost all news presenters adopt an identical locational affect – it’s really specific in fact. Numerous voice actors take on roles that aren’t true to their own backgrounds, and voice acting can be much more about projecting an affect that can communicate a lot through a very small amount of experience.

Plus, I don’t want to stand here and talk about this like it’s a form of cultural intrusion. That’s a much more chancy sphere, and the last thing the world needs is a white guy standing here telling other people how they should communicate. That’s super obnoxious (and part of why it angers me when Americans do it to me).

If you want to look at the way this sphere of media is fraught, in Downsizing there’s Hong Chau’s character Ngoc Lan Tran. Tran spoke in that movie with a really heavy Vietnamese accent and broken English – an accent she said she derived from her own family.It was something of a hot topic for people to complain about this accent and even flat-out call it racist, for her to have it. I’m not here to defend the movie or how the movie depicted it, but people were saying that the accent Hong Chau chose that evoked her own Vietnamese heritage was ‘wrong,’ and made her sound like a joke. People criticised the accent, and then they asked her about where she got it from.

That’s part of the problem with this sort of cultural imperialism: You’re made to feel your own voice is inherently non-serious. That you’re not a person, you’re a comedy prop.

You know we were going to get to this.

I hate Junkrat. I hate that Junkrat is meant to be Australian. I hate that he’s voiced by a Californian. I hate that other Australians love him. I hate how Overwatch treats Australia, because, boy howdy, is that some extremely racist stuff. But even if I didn’t hate all that, even if I didn’t hate who Junkrat is meant to be and what Junkrat is meant to be about, his accent would still suck.

And that means whenever I hear Junkrat talk, I don’t hear an Australian accent or a New Zealand accent. I hear an American, projecting to other Americans, an accent that’s meant to be about my part of the world. And all that time means every time I hear Junkrat talk, I’m pulled out of whatever fiction he’s meant to represent and just reminded that, oh yeah, this voice.

I personally feel that an accent is one of those things where we forgive you if you’re good enough. If I can’t tell your accent is fake, then it doesn’t matter that it’s fake. It’s basically diegetic, and that’s pretty interesting and weird.

Also, Olly’s like, on Patreon and Blizzard are one of the highest-paid gaming companies in the world. That’s a factor too.