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.

MTG: Pet Cards XVI, Khans Block

The best block of modern MTG history is the block with the single biggest structural mistake in it and it’s a structural mistake because there is basically no meaningful way to have course-corrected or changed it. Making this mistake was 100% reasonable in the way that Magic sets are crafted and in a way it’s good that the structure that bound Khans and ruined Tarkir died here. It was doomed before Tarkir was made, but it seems fitting perhaps that a design dragon – the needs of small sets to serve larger ones – was slain in the lands of Tarkir.

What I’m talking about is that Khans of Tarkir is, without a doubt, one of the best sets of modern Magic. It is one of the best worlds, and its cultures represent something we both haven’t had much of and were finally able to put conception to. In most faction sets, the factions include a few duds – most people can appreciate an element of a faction or two, but most people who like the MTG factions will like one or two of them. Tarkir howerver put this on its ass because all the factions are cool, and have something about them to recommend (except the Sultai, who make up for their moral and narrative failings with grotesque power). Tarkir was great and it was cool and it had this interesting post-apocalyptic feel thanks to the absence of Dragons, but it didn’t hurt for them. Without dragons, the game had to make do with other big things that crashed through defensive lines.

Then, the fiction told us, we went back in time (a bad sign) and changed things to bring back dragons. Which could have been cool, but it meant all those noble, interesting, exciting khans we met, and grew attached to were now all losers subservient to a bunch of dragons, who were also now emblematic of the death of The Thing We Liked.

How were Wizards to know that we’d love their Khans? How were they to know we’d like Khans way better than their dragons that sucked? Dragons are consistantly some of the highest-polling cards in the game!

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Term: Semi-Co-Op Games

Okay, remember cooperative games? Well, semi-co-op games work around that space. They have the basic setup of a cooperative game, but there’s something in the game, some player’s behaviour, that keeps it from being purely cooperative. Usually this means there’s a player who is secretly working against the actions of other players, but sometimes it can mean that there’s just the suspicion of such a thing.

There’s a really different affect to a semi-cooperative game. Semi-co-op games aren’t like ‘cooperative games, but,’ because suspicion tends to become a huge part of the game. It’s less about how to complete the cooperative challenge, and much more about how you can use your actions to either obscure your intentions, or to entice other players to take actions that would evoke their identity.

Utility

Semi co-op structures are really good at fighting quarterbacking (as described in the cooperative term). They’re also really good for representing a fairly robust, classical narrative – people work together, then there’s a sudden disruption where someone gets revealed to not be a part of the solution. There’s also just the fear of that. Sometimes players will avoid making optimal communication just because they might be dealing with a traitor in a game that might not have one active.

The other type of semi-co-op can be one with one player an open adversary to the other players. This opposition means you can give the game an oppositional force that has to make decisions, like a Dungeonmaster or Game Master role.

Another, third way to do semi-co-op is to have players form cooperative units. Imagine a game where two players work together on their own small project, at a time, then each of those projects compete to see what they can do.

Limitations

The problems present in cooperative game design tend to be coded out of semi-co-op. With at least one player adding an element of confrontation, it becomes easier for difficulty to adjust to players’ behaviours. When a game’s opposition is primarily a hard-coded system (like a scenario, or cards, or combinations of those cards) it can make opposition feel a bit blunt and thoughtless. If a player is the one opposing you, they add a different feeling to that experience…

… buuuut then you have to basically make two games at once. Semi co-op games have to have design space set out for the oppositional player and this can often get out of hand. It’s part of the design load, where you need to create content for both forms of contribution.

Examples

Betrayal at the House on the Hill, Dead of Winter, the non-co-op expansions to Pandemic.

Game Pile: Mysterium

Board games are, for me, mostly, an element of a loaf. Friends are around, we have board games, test and see what people are into and then we go for it. Sometimes my board games go into a bag and travel with me to my parents’ place and they don’t get played and that’s okay. Usually ‘board games’ mean playing a few different games in one spot. Very few games I own really qualify as the kind of thing it’s worth making into any kind of event.

I have one that can, though.

And it’s one of the best games of its type to get you into playing board games.

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Voice Acting Is Bad, As We Do It

This is more a personal beef but it is one that I feel connects to problems with videogames in general.

Voice acting, in videogames, is usually handled in a representative way. That is, a character has a line of dialogue, and the voice actor directly expresses that line of dialogue. This means the voice actor is trying to represent that line of dialogue ‘right.’ To do that, the voice actor needs to understand what the ‘right’ version of that dialogue is. To do that, they need to be able to put that line into context, and to do that they need someone who can interpret for them every possible version of that line, based on all available context of the game.

This is obviously not very easy.

The work of a director is then to both understand the game’s fiction on a deep level and how that interacts with the game’s play experience. They then have to be able to rely on what they’re talking about remaining unchanged, so they probably need to start work once the rest of the game’s fiction has been decided upon. They also need some degree of creative control to ensure that if a voice actor can’t deliver a line, or if the fiction has some potential failure state where things don’t make sense, the voice actors aren’t stuck trying to do something they can’t. That means the fiction has to have some flexibility.

Also, voice acting needs to work without pauses but also without crosstalk. Naturalistic dialogue has more problems the more you pause between sounds, which means that for the director’s sake, they probably need all the voice actors at once so they can deliver dialogue around one another easily and make sure lines flow smoothly into one another.

Then for that to work you’re probably going to need a lot of time, time for breaks for actors to recharge, then you’ll also probably want some concealer booths so actors can properly emote based on surprises and none of this is how it gets done. Obviously. You can’t wait until the entire production of a game is done to get voice acting done. As part of the game’s fiction it might get done in the later stages, but you’re just not going to get this kind of outlay and planning for the voice acting, which is largely seen as ‘unimportant’ as a component of the narrative.

The other thing is, all of this is in service of one, representative version of the narrative voice. Doing this removes ambiguity you get with textual dialogue, which may be nice if you want your message to be extremely explicit, but it also runs contrary to the scope of the kind of storytelling you normally get in games. Games tend to run dozens of hours, with a fiction where timing is remarkably difficult to connect to the play experience, so you can’t exactly treat them like movies (David Cage), and because the timing is handled by the player, you can’t treat them like TV Series, either.

Oh, and the inclusion of voice acting makes it so changing dialogue at any point becomes expensive. Star Wars: The Old Republic, being fully voice acted, has to pay for voice acting for expansions, which is hideously pricey compared to the way expansions are meant to go (ie, much cheaper than the original production). Oh, and everything multiplies for each region you intend to release your game in.

None of this is to say that Voice Acting Is Bad. It’s just right now, the way we do voice acting is bad, and the only reason we get to have games voice acted the way we do tends to tie into whether or not voice actors are being underpaid and overworked for what they do, and then blamed for failures of the system around them.

Personally, I think one of the best options for conveying the tone and atmosphere of a line without necessarily relying on a single perfect representation of the dialogue by a voice actor is when you reduce an actual dialogue to vocables, like Midna uses. This kind of non-voice-voice is used throughout Legend of Zelda games (except Breath of the Wild) and it’s really good for allowing the actor to convey a tone without needing them to perfectly frame their dialogue.

It’s also cheaper and allows for ambiguous interpretation of dialogue in a way that’s more akin to books than to movies, but that’s my preference and I understand not every storyteller wants to do that.

Still, textual ambiguity is one of the best friends a writer can have when the director of the total experience might be running around putting buckets on people’s heads and stealing all the cheese.

Term: Cooperative Games

A cooperative game is a game where multiple players are all working together to achieve the common end of the game. This isn’t the same thing as a game where players can cooperate (like many trading games or war games), but games where the entire point of the game is for two or more players to work together to win it.

Utility

Cooperative game designs are great for making games for players who aren’t interested in direct conflict.

They’re also good for making somewhat basic problems much more complicated and engaging. It’s one thing to just lift a box, but if one player has to lift the box, and another player push it forwards, you’re going to make something that wasn’t quite a challenge into a problem of communication.

Honestly, though, cooperative games are excellent for people who just don’t want their games to be about butting heads and would rather work together.

Limitations

One of the big problems that cooperative games tend to get is commonly called quarterbacking. The idea is that as long as all players are collaborating on the project of the game means that it’s possible that one player can take control of the play – that there is, in any situation an optimal play, and then it falls to one player to make that play as best they can.

This can mean that in any given play situation, one player might not be making many choices, and one player might be making more. There are ways around this, but quarterbacking is the biggest problem with pure cooperative games.

Examples

Pandemic, and most of its connected works. Mysterium. Hanabi. Spirit Island.

MTG: Pet Cards XV, Theros Block

Oh man, I remember this set! I got to draft this set for the first time in years. We sat down and did an in-home draft with a friend’s box, and it was super interesting. There was a wide variety of skill levels, and I lost – hard – to a runaway lifelinker with my mono-black aggro devotion deck. It was a lot of fun to play, though, and I remembered feeling that it was time to reboot my online account and get back to playing.

I have quite a few staples from Theros block. As with Charms, and Cluestones and Gates in Return To Ravnica, there are plenty of perfectly good cards in this set to build around or to always have on hand, and the Gods of Theros represent some of the better bulk mythics you’ll fine.

Except Keranos, weirdly.

You’ll never be wild about using Temples in your mana base, but you’ll also never be that unhappy with them compared to most of the lesser alternatives. You’ll not always be able to make the best use of cards like Heliod and Pharika, but having them around as potentially useful cheap threats in midrange and control decks works out well.

Oh, and Content Warning: I will show a card with a spider on it. Sorry!

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MTG: Vintage Turning Room

I talk about materiality of games, and I’ve talked about how Magic: The Gathering has this invisible materiality that impacts how the games get designed. Now in some cases, this materiality is things like deck size and tournament duration and things that keep players shuffling and interacting with the material object. I’ve said that Commander, the format is transformed in terms of speed if you simply ban every single card that says search’ and ‘library,’ or roughly 600 cards. No land-out-of-library based ramp, no more tutors, no more repetitive gamestates.

There is, however, another type of materiality that Magic: The Gathering tries to make invisible, and that’s cost.

Magic isn’t, despite what you may hear, an actually expensive hobby. It can be – you can spend a lot, but to play the game itself has a lot of really cheap venues. Digital versions of the game can be played at the highest level of access for literally nothing, for example, and then there’s MTGO, where cards’ values are largely deflated, so if you want to play (for example) a deck with Bayous, there’s a marked price difference: Continue reading

Project: The Pipesman Conspiracy

Hey, this is kinda a cool one.

I’m working on this little game. It is, as far as I understand, never going to be for sale anywhere. It’s going to be available only as a charity option in Desert Bus. As I write this, I’m finishing up the first round of beta card faces.

The game is a secret goal, area control game about the city of Nsburg, the setting of Loading Ready Run’s QWRPline, and I’m making it so you can bid on it, and win it, for charity!

This is a really weird feeling? Like I wish I’d gotten into that space of making fan games, when people would think it was reasonable that I was making not-for-profit free games which built in spaces people liked already, like Star Wars amateur card games or the like, before I vaulted into making proper games, games with concerns like copyright and stuff, because I was selling them for money.

I mean I don’t regret it, but still. It’s nice to work with someone else’s concepts, someone else’s art. I really liked the way that the game came into being as I tried to express this idea of a slightly crap, but very funny conspiracy.

Anyway, with that in mind, here are some examples of card faces in production!

This game is almost a wallet game – the town of Nsburg can be made with as few as 16 cards, and the goals can be a few more cards on top of that, to make sure they’ve got some variety to them. You don’t want the game to be about the same end-goals every time, right?

The two goals are meant to represent two different options – one that’s kind of easy to do, if nobody is messing with you, and one that’s a lot harder to do, but much more specific. The idea is that you’re meant to be able to arrange the city of Nsburg based on your particular interpretation of the incredibly vague plan of the Pipesman.

Now, the game that remains might get stripped down a little bit and rethemed maybe a little bit to be a different game, but there is going to be at least one feature that definitely only exists in the special Nsburg version of the game.

Now, when this goes up, odds are good the game is on its way to Canada. We’ll see how this goes!

Friction

The reason that perpetual motion machines don’t work is friction. No matter how little energy you think is being expended in the process, there’s always a part of it that’s losing a little bit of that energy, a little bit of that effort, in the process of just working. If a wheel turns, some of the energy it’s using turning is gone thanks to being spent on the process of turning. No matter how clever or cute your system may look, if it’s not getting energy from somewhere to overcome that energy that’s going somewhere, you are running down.

This happens in games, too. I’ve been playing some old dos games, and the interfaces are often the things that I really struggle with, because just the mental effort of getting used to using those buttons to do those things and get used to how it wants to work is a flipping chore. War Wind is a real prize of an old RTS – heck, almost all RTSes are like this – where the lack of things like shortcut keys or even a map that responds cleanly to ideas like dragging and dropping is a huge pain in the ass. Memorising all the shortcuts is the best option but then that’s the same kind of labour. It’s friction.

In tabletop games this exists too. The math you have to do to resolve a combat is friction, and I think that 4th Edition D&D does have a bit too much fiddly friction in its feat system. Specific clausal conditions generate that friction, they lose player energy and effort.

Shuffling is friction. I love Sector 86, but no lies, every few minutes every player sits around waiting for the deck to have a good ole shuffle. Fetchlands in Magic: The Gathering are awesome, but they also add seven minutes or so of time to an otherwise unremarkable match of the game.

In games, you are asking your players to put in effort, and some of that effort is spent in places. If I am losing effort on the things that don’t feel rewarding, I am spending energy managing existing.

This is, incidentally, part of why depression is so rough on people’s lives, in case you needed another useful metaphor to help you not treat people with depression badly.

 

Ways To Fail And Be Failed

Trying to be concise with a concept. This time, the concept is from Jesper Juul’s The Art of Failure: An Essay On The Pain Of Playing Video Games.

In this, he describes three different types of failure that you can encounter:

Failures of Execution. You messed up.

Failures of Motivation. You weren’t encouraged to do the right thing.

Failures of Function. You did the right thing, but it didn’t work.

As a player, what does it matter how you fail? You may have no idea why you’re failing, or what the type of failure is. Watching Lucy Morris play The Witcher 2, I watched all three happen in quick succession, without any indication that they were at all happening.

The section of the game is a stealth section in the mission The Search For Triss Merigold. First of all, the game has a failure of function – you can be stuck in a place where you can’t earn any money, and your only alternative to the stealth section is to spend a lot of money. This means you’re presented with a choice that can’t be a choice; you didn’t have any reason to turn up with your pockets bulging and you can’t go do anything else to earn money.

Then there was a failure of motivation. The correct course of action in the game was to sneak into a camp, avoid several guards, sneak to a location, dose a chef, then sneak out through a path that opens up. This particular sequence of events was so obscure, so utterly without, that Lucy didn’t even know she wasn’t doing the right thing. When she messed up in this stealth section, at all, she was killed without any recourse – which meant anything she tried that didn’t work was immediately discarded. She wasn’t getting a clear feedback on why she was failing, and that meant she had no idea what the right thing was to do.

Eventually, Lucy opted for a walkthrough, because what other alternative was there?

And then, then there were failures of execution. Lucy knew what she had to do, but still died a few times trying to get there. This was extremely frustrating, but the knowledge that she was working towards the correct plan was better than nothing.

Alright, fine, The Witcher 2′s stealth section sucks, but what does this mean for me and my life, you wonder?

Well, As a designer, what does it matter how a player fails?

First, failures of function are on you – the player can’t make the game behave right, you’re the one that does that.

A failure of motivation lies more on you than on them, too – because you want to induce them to do things in your game. A player might not care enough to pay attention, sure, and that’s not entirely on you, but you can do more to guide players than you think, and plenty of games have messed up letting players know what they should be doing.

And failures of execution, if they happen regularly, may be a sign that you’re expecting too much of a player. They’re also the kind of failure that players find the most satisfying to overcome. Succeeding despite a game failing is less satisfying than succeeding despite your own previous failures.

Game Pile: Fallout 2

Sometimes when you talk about a game, it’s easy to fall into the same model of examining the thing based on what it’s trying to do (like with Deus Ex) or its place in history (like with Ziggurat). You can sometimes examine a game based on its themes or its story, and those are all valid ways to examine a game.

Yet I have made the case that games are too large to have single defining characteristics. That I found Deus Ex: Mankind Divided hollow and dull isn’t the same thing as saying that the game was bad, not really, not in any kind of definitive way, it just tells you that I found it kinda dim and if you care about things I care about in games, you will probably find it unsatisfying. Anyone could find something in the work and take that perception in its own direction and so on and that’s the glory of media criticism and games journalism.

When examining Fallout 2, not only is that game now far too large to have a single defining trait, it’s also part of a piece of gaming history, a legacy that also destroys the ability of the critic to meaningfully give a truly broad perspective of it in a meaningful context. To write about Fallout 2 comprehensively would be a book, not an article.

Instead, what if we focus on something in a game?

What if we dug down into just one thing about a game?

Let’s talk about The Highwayman. Continue reading

Kobold Testing Your Dungeon

This is going to feature some meanspirited conversation that implies kobolds are dorky, nebbish little critters invented to be dungeon fodder and their lives are disposable.

Anyway, have you considered using piles of kobolds to failure-test your dungeon designs? The principle is pretty simple, based on these assumptions:

  • Kobolds will never get something right the first time
  • Kobolds die really easily

For a kobold test, you have an arbitarily large number of kobolds. A number of them comparable to an adventuring party – four or five – proceed into your dungeon, with a line behind them of other kobolds.

When the line of kobolds reach the first point of making a decision, have them make the worst decision, or at least, ensure they don’t commit to the right decision. Kobolds are remarkably inefficient wiith buffs as well, so if there are things in the dungeon that protect or insulate kobolds, the lead kobold will take it, but the kobold can then die going onwards.

Kobolds fall into every trap, and they will kill a kobold.

Kobolds will eat every thing you put in the dungeon, they will mess up on every puzzle, and they will die every time they fail.

Kobolds trade their lives – dearly – for the lives of an enemy. Every five kobolds can defeat an enemy of roughly equal skill to a player, dying in the process. If an enemy can defeat five kobolds at once, with area effects or the like, then the kobolds will pour infinitely to them andyour dungeon is not kobold safe.

Kobolds can learn from one another though: Once something kills a kobold, no other kobold will fall for the same problem. So a trap that kills one kobold and doesn’t change or do something different as a follow-up, will not kill any more kobolds.

What’s the purpose?

Well, you can treat this count of dead kobolds as a measure for how frustrating your dungeon can be. It’s a way to estimate the ‘worst case’ scenario for your dungeon. It’s able to find ways that your dungeon can become a frustrating arrest. And it’s a way of disposing of an arbitarily large number of kobolds.

Game Pile: Commander Keen 2

Okay, I’ve burrowed down on some specific points in games. Like how I used Hyrule Warriors to discuss hyperintertextuality, which sucks, or how I’m going to use Skyrim to talk about Rick Astley (that’s a teaser). And I’ve done a bit of a historical thing on Commander Keen 1, based on the video about stimulated recall, and if you get into it, Commander Keen 2 isn’t really a tangibly different game.

If I wanted to explain to you how Commander Keen 2 worked, or what it was doing or its values, I’d have to really pull out the shovels and get into it, to dig deep, to really go out of my way to pick at some seriously tiny nit, and you’d have to be pretty weird, and pretty obssessive about the details in old videogames to care about that kind of thing. I mean, you’d have to be a real dork and isn’t this just overthinking, isn’t this the kind of obssessive detail-oriented comma-fricking that we disdain when people do it of high-faluting fancy academic books and frame-by-frame movie analysese.

Anyway, so I’m going to do that.

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Arcing Ruck

During July 2017 I went on what I can only really think of a bit of a bender working on games. Specifically I was working on games pretty much constantly for a few weeks there, and as a byproduct, made five titles in about three weeks.

You’ve heard hype about some of them. Sector 86, the little push-your-luck blackjack-a-like that I played a bunch of times. Good Cop, Bear Cop. Pushpins. There were quite a few titles that I tried out and shared on Twitter. Some of them became proper, full blown game releases, games I happily play now with my family and advocate for you to buy, with money.

One of these games was Ruck. Continue reading

Project: Urban Magecraft

The Pitch: Urban wizards fighting terrible conspiracies while petitioning strange entities for their magic, except you’re not just playing one of the mages, you’re also playing one of the other player’s power sources.

Details

It’s a Blades in the Dark hack where you’re playing urban mages in a modern urban fantasy setting. Rather than that Vancian, science-y view of magic, though, everyone has a unique magic type and source, which works by interacting with some otherworldly entity. Some mages petition fae sources, some channel an animal totem (?), some make deals with demons and some learn secrets from the Stars.

The thing is, every one of those entities is played by another player in the group. You get two sheets at the start of the game, where one represnts a power source for another player, and one represents your own mage. You get to concept how your mage relates to their power, but when you want to use magic, you petition the player who plays the entity your magic flows from.

Obviously the incentive system would need to be set up so that while the otherworldly entities don’t want to just give up power. The entity might be like a fun faerie party buddy who wants to collect secrets, or an ineffable entity that can’t communicate meaningfully and has to make exchanges with beads or something, or it might be your own werewolf nature, and accessing that power has to be more of a tussle or a struggle. But the point is, that a player is using a character sheet to make choices rather than a DM. The entities want to bequeath power, but they want to do it in exchange for the right things.

Needs

Oh jesus christ, a ton of stuff.

See the thing for me is that I’ve never made an RPG before. I’ve made RPG content, but never an RPG from the ground up. Even one as a hack.

I’d want a template for Blades in the Dark to fill in, which I understand some people have out there already.

I’d want some art, and some playtesters.

Do you think you have the skills for this? Are you interested in the idea? Feel free to contact me, either via the Twitter DMs or by emailing me!

MTG: Pet Cards XIII, Innistrad Block

God, I love this set. I love Innistrad for its flavour and its aesthetics, and also because it sort of represents the reality I understood of the world growing up. Trust the masters, trust the pastors, because they know what’s going on. Outside is dark, outside is lonely, do not go outside, do not risk the night.

There are wolves.

And they will make you one of them.

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Game Pile: Wolfenstein 3D

You know what Wolfenstein 3D is. Probably. if you don’t, here’s your basic rundown.

Wolfenstein 3D is a classic first-person shooter game that was both pretty good and thanks to shareware, widely distributed. One of the games made by id Software, as part of their arc of changing the face of PC gaming, Wolfenstein 3D was a spiritual successor to an old stealth game on the Apple II and other platforms, Castle Wolfenstein. The game started with you trapped in a dungeon full of nazis, with a limited toolset to escape that was, basically, killing nazis.

There, okay, we all done with the basics? Don’t need me explaining graph paper and stuff? Cool. Moving on!

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Design Teleology

Today (when I’m writing this) was a Note Revision day. Basically the way I’m doing my PhD research is mostly reading things and taking notes, then one day a week I’m just crunching all those notes into something coherent. If I can’t explain it, I didn’t get it, so if my notes have a hole in it, I have to go back and re-examine them. This is in my opinion, a good practice to get myself in the habit of re-examining what I knew, and to treat this study as a marathon rather than a sprint. I can read a book and parrot back a few things in it from memory pretty easily, and, since my field of study is relatively obscure and even quite fragmented I can even make it look like I’m super smart just by wavering around on something I read and then give you a mangled explanation, but that’s not understanding it. The ACE system taught me to read a text and quote a few lines, after all, and anything I can do to annoy those miserable arse-wombles, I will do every chance I get.

Anyway, today’s notes were on a book I’ve mentiond before, called Game Research Methods, which was compiled and edited by Lankoski and Bjork, and it’s a book primarily about introducing some tools for researching videogames.

This is a solid book and it’s particularly solid because the opening chapters start with ideas like ‘what is research‘ and ‘how do we prove research,’ and by the end it’s talking about the idea of Grounded Theories where you start by gathering a heckton of data about game, then assemble your theories out of what interesting patterns you see in it. That’s different from conventional research where you start with a hypothesis and then try to gather data that will prove what you’re hypothesising is wrong.

Anyway, one of the things this book does that I’m not wild about, but which isn’t strictly speaking bad, is that it suggests that one of the mandatory things for researching a videogame is playing it exhaustively to ensure an understanding of the systems.

This is something that bugs me, because games do tons of stuff under the hood and you don’t know how it’s doing it. This vision of game design is kind of muffled, because I can go through any game, any game I love, as many times as I want, and I won’t know what the design is trying to do, I can only deal with what the design does in my experience of it. This leads to a problem with gamer mentalities where having played a lot of a game is seen as proof you understand the game, where buying a lot of games makes you informed on how games get made.

It’s a pretty well known fact that games do stuff you don’t know about and won’t understand. You can throw a brick and hit a story about this. Sometimes it’s a bug that people got used to. Or how about the ways games deliberately lie to you, not just about plot, but lie to you through interface.

But here’s the thing.

Is the experience of playing the thing we call a videogame, or is the device designed to give you that experience the thing we call a videogame?

3rd Ed D&D – The Whale Monk

We talk a good game about how weird balance was back in Dungeons and Dragons but sometimes it just made a kind of sense. Druids were really good because they could shapeshift into animals and also cast spells. Fighters were bad because they had to stand in one spot and whale on something to get the most of their abilities, and no amount of hit point damage compared to ‘dead on the spot from having your soul ripped out.’

There are however, some odd places that the balance of the game just blind-spotted. It’s a bit of a canard, back in 3rd edition that every book had a broken thing in it, and the more stuff in the book, the more chance you’d find something that slipped up and had more broken stuff in it. Almost every splatbook in 3rd edition featured a class that was busted weak and another that was busted strong, and another that just didn’t work properly. Yet nonetheless, it was in a published book, and that means that it has some reality to it, some unvirtuality that leaves the creative mind of the DM fit to examine the option and decide if it’s okay, or not.

Let me show you something extremely silly and extremely powerful that a reasonable DM might give you a funny look over.

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MTG: Hallar Great

So, there’s this enby.

I love making commander decks. Even the ones that get stomped a fair bit. It’s kind of hard to call a commander deck good, or bad, because Commander 1v1 is such a swingy format with nonsense flying around. It’s like a slightly more splashy vintage where the early turns don’t tend to matter quite as much. You can sometimes just get infinited out by a god draw that the other deck is never planning on actually doing.

What’s more, there are usually a lot of different ways to build a commander deck – my Wasitora for example is nothing like the Wasitora’s I’ve seen online, where I made a value Jund deck and other people make a dragon tribal removal-heavy deck. I’ve been looking

Hallar, the Firefletcher is my latest passion.

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Print and Play: Adventure Town, Pt 5

Today, I wanted to try and finish a prototype of Adventure Town. One sit down session where I hustle my tuchus off and come out of it with something I can present like a real game designer. I honestly feel bad about how long it’s taken to make Adventure Town because part of the point of it was to make something I could hammer out in less than a month as a side-project and distribute freely to my Patreon sponsors as a purely digital product.

Still, what is experimentation if not for the experiment!

Nonetheless, progress. I sat down and tried to think about what more I needed to finish Adventure Town’s first printing. The systems are all in place, really, for what I consider a ‘basic run’ of the game.

Aesthetics

The system of Adventure Town is a little bit like a sort of Machi Koro like game. You buy parts of the town, and then adventurers come to town, spend their money, and the businesses in town react to those adventurers. They’ll give you money, or prestige, or maybe they’ll work on your personal quests.

There’s the common sheet, your personal sheet, and then the game has dice and cards. The idea is that for a print and play game, the cards are easily made and reused for each game, and there aren’t many of them – maybe 25 or so.

These cards are all meant to represent adventurers that come to the town at the end of each turn, and that means the card space is going to feature some visual stuff, a picture of the adventurer so that people can focus on that character and know when they show up. So, ideally, they want to be pretty diverse and distinct from one another.

This means the game is built between three different aesthetic spots: The board, the cards, and the player boards, and now

Now I have a problem.

I don’t want to spend a ton of money or time on Adventure Town. I have some art assets I can use already, and now I’m wondering if I should use existing art assets. With that in mind, I’m going to ask my Patreon subscribers for more specific opinions, but the basics are am I going to use the art of FinalbossBlues, which is pixelly, and make the game more like running a JRPG town, or will I use the ink art of the Terrible Character Portrait Pack?

We’ll see how it goes!

Next Step

We’re in what some people are calling a Golden Year for roll-and-write games, which is nice but I’m trying to not let what those games are doing influence me too much. Some of the things you can do with good production values include booklets that change one another, or sequential pages or rules changes, while I’m trying to make a game you can print out and conveniently.

Still, because I have free distribution and production costs (more or less) I can afford to give players a lot of options if making those options is relatively easy. And thus we come to my next thought – offering multiple town maps. The first thought was using cards to represent the town, but part of the point of this game design is to make it so players can draw on and deface the board itself. I was thinking I might want to allow – if the design allows for it – oddball things like being able to blow up or change rules on some locations.

But I’m getting distracted. The point is: Card based board is not an option. Especially because the point of the board is to be replaceable with a simple printing! We’ll talk more about alternate board stuff once I’ve printed out and played with some more boards!

Game Pile: Commander Keen 1: Marooned On Mars

This is an experiment. I explain it in the video, but the basic gist is this: There’s this idea called Stimulated Recall. The idea is that in research, you often want a participant to do something, then you ask them questions about that something. Stimulated Recall involves recording the task, and then getting the participant to watch the video and explain what they’ve seen on the screen.

This is a small experiment in doing this solo, and we’ll see if I have more to do in this vein. But we’ll come to that later.

‘Broken’ Games

With SGDQ under our belts, one thing I keep hearing is ‘broken’ games. “Break the game,” the term, mostly relates to being able to give a game something that shouldn’t work, and then have it work. Rolling out of bounds, jumping atop things you can’t normally, bouncing off surfaces that are meant to stop you, the way we talk about these behaviours is that the runner has broken the game.

I don’t like this expression.

Look, when you break the game, the game *stops*. That’s a break. That’s when the game comes into pieces. If you want a game to break let’s go to boot up some old DOS4GW games under windows and watch them immediately fall apart as they try to allocate into memory that literally does not exist. That’s a broken game, and hey, I got the game to conclude in record time.

No, what happens when you tell Strider or Pokemon or Super Mario World that you’re writing into some godforsaken region and clipping into a wall and swimming up and down a dirt track, is here’s something you weren’t designed to expect, so handle it. And the thing that’s amazing about a lot of these games is they do.

Making levels back in Quake days meant I got really sensitive about how you triggered things. It was entirely possible that you could design a level that was unwinnable because you put the trigger for ‘finish this level” on the subtly wrong side of a button. When you call a game that can be told you’re approaching the end point from Angle Q at a jajillion units per second, and it reacts to that by going okay boss then the game is the absolute opposite of broken.

It might be permissive. It might be forgiving. It might even be a bit dopey. But you didn’t break the game. You asked the game to do something ridiculous and it didn’t break.

 

Half Life’s Empty Promises

I think about @Campster‘s take on Half-Life 2 a lot.

There’s absolutely a line of conceptual continuity between Half-Life and Half-Life: And The Rest and Portal Babies. The first games were experiments in linear in-game storytelling, where rather than seize control, fix a camera and make you see things by conventional cinematives, the storytelling of Half-Life was being done while you acted in the space, and rather than concern themselves with how to frame the scene, they recognised that you would frame it yourself, naturally, if they just made it something you wanted to look at. This was really bold, and involves giving up a lot of control, which is something as a designer, you’re always loath to do. Letting players come up with their own stuff is very exciting but it can mean you literally waste effort.

Back when videogames were more like puzzle boxes, and you were expected to sit there nagging at one for months at a time instead of ditching it for another distraction, it was not uncommon to put more stuff in the game than you’d see on one natural playthrough. There are people who played Commander Keen who have no idea that they had secret levels. Small teams can do this – especially when they’re confronted with some ideas that don’t work or things that wind up being too hard getting junked and moved to other parts of a game. Some stuff that’s ‘too hard’ can get thrown into the content but made hard to get to, as a way to warn you about what you’re getting into. Hey, this level was hard to find, do you really think it’ll be easy to win?

Anyway, this mindset isn’t how things work when videogames cost as much as they do, and it’s harder to carve out exploratory stuff. When you make a linear sequence of narrative, you don’t have a lot of time to break between the game time and the narrative time. Half-Life always tried to keep those two time scales wedded to one another, even if the wedding was entirely illusory. You can go AFK at almost any point in the ‘time sensitive’ story of Half-Life and the game will pick up as you left off. You will always arrive just in time for the events you’re heading towards.

Do to that kind of thing you need to plan ahead, you need to make sure you have teams working on A, B, C, and D with the right priority of effort and the right control to make sure that D and C don’t fall flat because of something with A. That kind of planning just means that you’re going to have to get rid of all the uncontrolled stuff you can, shave away the ways players can create uncontrolled reactions in that extra space. This uncontrolled reaction space, by the way, is known as play.

So Half-Life is essentially a game that wants to minimise your ability to play it.

Pretty weird when you think about that, isn’t it?

This is honestly why some of the decisions and timing in Half-Life don’t make any sense. They’re always trying to minimise ways you can mess up the plan, and the big thing in the core of those plans is that you will advance. The only thing they let you do to break the plan is to die, and then you can come back for more. In essence, Half-Life creates an experience of a corridor, as per the above video.

The thing with this plan is as you shave bits off it, as you drop piece after piece of ‘play’ options, you wind up making this experience that’s focused more on continuity than on content. Anyone who’s worked on a draining project will tell you, when something is hard to make, you find every reason to ditch on the things that don’t matter, and you ditch on them hard. It’s why Half-Life is a corridor escape from a single room, and Half-Life 2 is a corridor escape from a single room that pretends it’s actually an open world with a destination. Look at Xin – a few drifting islands you explicitly can’t travel around or learn anything about.

I guess what I’m saying here is I don’t think there ever was meaning behind anything in Half-Life.

I have this idea, fuelled in part by the existence of expansions like Blue Shift and Opposing Forces that at no point at all did anyone involved in Half-Life really have a ‘point’ for the story. If you can hand the work over to a stranger, and not care if they introduce an entire new enemy faction to your story, you clearly don’t have a vision for what should be in your story. If there was content worth expanding, you could have given them that.

The story of Half-Life, told in one long sequence, rings of someone who is really, really worried you’re going to get bored before they get to the ‘end,’ and so they keep inventing things that it might be. There’s no real foreshadowing – that you can spot the G-man in the background of early stuff doesn’t mean anything because the G-man doesn’t mean anything. That the G-man offers you a choice is meaningless because the choice itself is meaningless. That the G-man shows up periodically to put you on the right part of the plot screams of a storyteller who keeps painting themselves into corners and wants to try and convince you it was good, actually.

Like a taupe Tardis, Half-Life is a series of increasingly unimportant boxes inside unimportant boxes, ever pulling you onwards with the promise there’s some thing at the end, and there never is.

In the end, total silence is Half-Life 3, and it’s the best Half-Life 3 we could ever get.