Category: Making

Articles in this category are about tools and ideas about making things, and my belief that you can make things.

Emergence Vs Progression

We talk a lot about games using inexact language. Genre terms are some of the worst – I’ve talked about how awkward our framework is. Sometimes we describe games based on their mechanics, their country of origin, other games they remind us of, the camera position, and even a few games get named based on the creator. It’s not a good system.

That said, let’s put out some Game Studies language that may be useful, maybe.

In half-real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds, Jesper Juul, Dutch Games Studies academic and renowned speller-of-videogames-as-two-words describes a whole range of stuff. It’s a good book, it’s got a lot of stuff in it, some of which I agree with, some of which I don’t, because that’s how academic books go.

In this book, though, he describes the idea of games of progression and games of emergence. Juul describes games of progression as functionally being about games where a player moves through a sequence of events one after the other. A common metaphor for this kind of game you’ll hear is a route. The simplest version of this could be mapped as something a bit like this:


That’s not to say that they’re strictly linear. You can make a game of progression that has varied sequences of routes that meet up, or even ones that go off in different directions.

The point with a game of progression is that by design they’re structured. Players in games of Progression have every reason to expect predictable responses, and a linear flow. That’s not to say you can’t go backwards in this kind of game’s spaces or anything – it’s that the game has a sequence of expected events the player moves through.

The other kind of game is known as a game of emergence. These games are built instead around rules that react and interrelate. Games of emergence set rules, and then let the play experience put those rules in contrast with one another. A good example of this is Minecraft, where the vastness of the worlds it generates and the things within them that connect to one another are mostly made out of very small sets of rules.

There is a corollary: There’s a common thing called emergent behaviour, where players engaging with a game use things in unexpected ways. This isn’t what games of emergence are about.

A good example of this is how in Quake, levels were designed with large open high areas that you had to reach through circuitous routes, and the explosive force of a rocket was made to let you knock enemies around and to give the weapon impact. Combine the two, and the ability to shoot a rocket at your feet and throw yourself into the air becomes a way to circumvent barriers in the level, to short-cut through parts of the game.

If the Quake levels hadn’t been designed with their bigger areas and overlooks, then rocket jumping wouldn’t be a useful emergent behaviour. If the rocket hadn’t been designed with the knockback it had, it wouldn’t be useful for short-cutting around the level. These are all just parts of the game, that never were planned to work alongside one another, and once players got their hands on them, they found the interaction and created something new.

As with all game models, it’s important to remember that these two things aren’t really as simple as they look. While you can point to (for example) World End Economica and see it as a linear game of progression, and SimCity as a game of emergence, games move between these zones hazily. One might be tempted to call Bloodborne or Dark Souls games of emergence because of their nonlinear structure and extremely flexible semi-random combat system, but one can also consider most games in the Soulsborne mould as a sequence of levels. You may do them in a different order, but the progression through each area is absolutely a path from a beginning to an end.

Juul’s short-cut for identifying the games is to look for a FAQ for the game. If the FAQ describes a sequence of things to do, it’s probably a game of progression; if the FAQ describes a list of strategies, it’s probably a game of emergence.

Getting Around The Ocean

One thing I wanna do more of this year on this blog is talking about design. Particularly, I want to talk about things I learned in my three years of monthly games. I want to make sure that information lives here on a blog, a searchable data point, rather than in a notebook with an index and a scribbled number.

I’m doing this, because I want you to know what I’m doing. I’ve done a bit of stuff about the graphic design techniques I use, and I’ll try and keep those up. But I’m also going to try and talk more about decisions, the actual plans involved.

Okay, with that in mind, gunna start on this. Design is the process of making choices to achieve outcomes within constraints.

One of my constraints at the moment is the Pacific Ocean.

If I want to print a game, DriveThruCards asks me to order at least 1 copy before I can sell it on their storefront. They have to print it, then send it to me, a process that takes a few weeks. If I want to change anything, I have to print another copy, and get that sent. This means that a small revision can add two weeks to a work and a large revision can add six or so. This can also mean that sometimes I’ll have to stock up on a game, and realise it’s got a mistake in it after the fact and then I’m left with goods that just fail in some way. This can be a real bummer!

This is definitely a local thing. If you’re in America, the costs are much lower, and the wait times aren’t so bad.

This has me thinking more about digital distribution of goods. Things I can send to people digitally, or small products, are a good idea. Right now, the most basic ideas I can see here are what I consider booklet games, where a small booklet (and maybe some extra things like dice or playing cards) is all you need to play. Another option is RPG Supplements – things like classes, ancestries, equipment or whatnot for various tabletop game systems I like and use. Another option is print and play, which… well, last year I meant to do experiments in that, and I didn’t get around to sharing much about it.

The final option, which is a bit more ambitious, is the idea of an expanding supplement game. A game that starts with maybe 10-15 cards as a print-and-play; and then month to month, I start adding more to the print-and-play, until it culminates with a large, final design and visual aesthetic. This sounds really exciting especially if people invested in it get to request/suggest specific card ideas, and see their ideas implemented!

These are some ideas.

For now I think I’m going to try and talk more about the process of finishing up betas for Adventure Town, then the project currently called The Reunion. The Reunion is an improv game, a single-session RPG which can have a storyteller or not, based around the players all being actors coming together to reunite after their most successful show has ended, inspired by Bojack Horseman and a hidden-identity mechanic I cannot escape thinking about.

 

Decemberween: Ettin, Moreso

If you were here last year, which I’m getting a strong feeling you were, you might have seen me talking about Ettin. Ettin is a good egg, and this year he and I both got started on an adventure of Using Patreon To Finance Stuff.

Ettin is what I consider stubbornly imaginative. When you give Ettin a blank slate, he’s a little stymied. If he gets to set all the scope, it can be hard to get the spark to push against something and get going. This is why he’s good at writing within other people’s creative spaces, and why he’s good at writing ridiculous premises. You may find yourself thinking those things can’t work, and that’s when Ettin’s imagination kicks in and goes hell I’ll show you.

This means that throughout this year, each month, Ettin has taken two poll options, which usually are chosen by people who actively are trying to annoy him, and stitches them together into some kind of game concept space. Sometimes it’s a whole game – you’re not usually getting a dense mechanical engine as much as you’re getting an idea palette that you can use to inform the flavour of that kind of game that you were already going to run. It’s system agnostic, usually. The other thing is… Ettin’s really good at that. Most of these logos convey the idea behind them, and usually that idea is itself interesting enough that you know whether or not you like it.

You should check out his Patreon. He’s cool, he makes wonderfully silly ideas, and if you try and torment him it will only make him stronger.

Decemberween: Fox!

Fox Lee, my partner, is an artist, designer, writer and web developer. She manages our websites, writes ad copy, edits rulebooks and creates entire games on her own. Fox has made a free otome game, which is great, and I recommend you go try it. That’s all been true as of last year.

This year, the games of ours that Fox contributed her art to include LFG, with its beautiful vibrant designs, Sparklebutt, which is… in development as I write this but it’s one good day from being done. Fox has had her own projects in the works, too, with Swan X Swan, an otome game modelled on Swan Lake, But Gay, which has had months of work poured into it.

She’s also managed basically our entire convention presence, including a heroic effort to get a presence at SMASH! despite a problem with our booking. She’s gotten us places to sleep, transport and printing and all while also hand-crafting goods like bookmarks and postcards. I know with my blog it’s focused on my work, and my own productivity, but Fox is an amazing creative and her work is fantastic and I love her and I’m proud of her and she’s great.

It’s kind of hard to talk about Fox without sounding like I’m just repeating myself.

Anyway. Happy Christmas Eve!

Project: Casino Worker Placement

The Pitch: It’s a wallet worker placement game, where you’re commanding a gang of The Suits inspired thieves hitting a casino, avoiding guards, and trying to have the best score at the end of the night, in a high contrast black-white-red style.

Details

First up, I wanted this game to use a small number of cards, some tokens and to fit entirely into a gamecrafter style bag. That meant trying to use a small number of cards to create a space. What I got was when I looked at cards like this, it wasn’t just nine rooms, it was also a series of hallways between them.

hey look maw, I’m vaporwave.

These are nine rooms, and players can move any amount, but there are guards that block hallways – and you can move them, too, with the right game action. That means that in addition to trying to put your thieves in some rooms, the guards also limit where you can be, but they also let you block your opponents’ movement or make it less convenient.

Each room has a value like a poker card, but also a type and a special rule. So there might be a room that pays out to everyone in it, or a room that pays out to the player who pays the least, or whatever. So it is a worker placement – you put in a worker, you get a thing. At the end of the game, though, your workers’ positions represents a poker hand and that determines your share of the final payout from the heist.

Needs

The biggest barrier to this is … well, stuff on gamecrafter is harder to sell at conventions. People tend not to buy my stuff on Gamecrafter, and this would want to be Gamecrafter for its tokens-and-cards style, as well as the small bag.

Think there’s a demand enough to continue on this idea?

Unintentional Optimisation

Let me complain about a problem I’m having.

One of my games, currently titled under the genius name Boat Game is about shipping containers. I’m very proud of it, I did the art myself, I’m liking seeing the bits come together etcetera, and I have a lot of system stuff done for it, but it’s not in that turbo-get-it-done stage that led to games like Winston’s Archive being blurred through.

What’s holding me up is that question I vented about earlier of procedurality. I’ve made a bunch of procedural games, where everything that exists exists in a specific set. You know, n hands of cards, or cards exist in these two-part combinations.

For Boat Game, I was trying to avoid that. Which means that while there are a bunch of shipping container cards that show two containers, I don’t think I want it to be as simple as ‘every combination of containers shows up the same amount of time.’ This then puts me in the next challenge.

How do I divide this up?

What I’m afraid of, at core, is the idea that by distributing these things unevenly I’m going to create a scenario that’s unfair. This is a card game – shuffling cards tends to increase variance, so if the distribution of cards has an unfairness in it, it won’t show up readily or easily. That means if I do create an unfair game state, it’s entirely possible I won’t catch it in the game development and playtesting.

I’m paralysed.

I am writing this to exorcise this, to some extent. After all: These things are distributed on markets and player behaviour. If there are some things super expensive or super valuable and rare, then the odds are good that players will still scrabble on it. The question is about whether or not things get too desperate, if things become too high-stakes.

m hoping by the time this publishes, the game is out, but hey.

Term: Traitor Mechanics

With co-op and semi-cop already introduced, it sort of seems a natural flow from that point that there are traitor mechanics. Traitor mechanics are mechanics where one individual player can choose to change their allegiance to the rest of the group. Traitor mechanics are important to separate from semi-co-op, because a traitor needs to have had some reason to be in the cooperative group in the first place.

Utility

Usually, traitor mechanics are best deployed when there’s an incentive for players to succeed together, but also an incentive to succeed alone. This can be a challenging puzzle when you deal with it in a larger scale – you want to design things so the traitor is an option without it being a natural endgame. You can also use traitor mechanics as a way to introduce surprise and spice to an existing game structure (and it shows up in some co-op Legacy games, but I won’t mention which ones because that’d spoilery).

Note that a game with a traitor mechanic really isn’t too different from ‘a semi-co-op game.’ These arent pure descriptors of mechanical language as much as they are trying to be useful guides to what someone means when they mention a thing.

Limitations

I tend to think that traitor mechanics want to be part of larger games – games like Archipelago and Battlestar Galactica, where if one player is a traitor, deducing that they are and routing around them still has enough game to it. That’s not to say they’re totally necessary to make traitor mechanics work – after all, you can view poker as a game based around a traitor mechanic, and so to our small game Pie Crimes.

I think myself, I’d avoid using the term traitor mechanic too broadly. It isn’t just the idea of competing, unsure teams like The Resistance – it’s about giving a player a reason and a choice to prioritise themselves over others. Dead of Winter does this by giving players secret goals – stockpiling medicine, for example – without necessarily making it break the whole group at large.  This isn’t Betrayal At The House On The Hill either because it’s not like a player ever has to choose between competing rewards.

Examples

Mafia De Cuba and The Game Of Thrones board game.

Working in Layers 2

A while back I wrote about working in layers for the design of a card, in Good Cop, Bear Cop. Thanks to the work of a friend, Vivienne, I got a nice 3d representation of this.

This here is a card from Sector 86. In this case, the card can have different names (under the ‘AKA’) and flavour text (italic at the bottom) with the same artwork and mechanical information. Now, this is a simplified version of the card, made out of parts, but here’s an example of how layering lets you make parts of the card art interact.

Work in layers is extremely basic advice, but it’s very good basic advice.

Anatomy of Nsburg

Hey, remember me posting about my Craft-a-long project for Desert Bus 2018? I made a little card game about rearranging the inner city of the town of Nsburg, from the QWERPline podcast.

Now, I posted a bunch of this to twitter, as I was doing it, but twitter rolls past, and I wanted it to be both searchable, and I wanted to remind you this is a thing you can have. This is going to be (hopefully, as far as I know) available as a charity prize for donating to Desert Bus 2018. Here! Check it out! Get hype!

Here are some of the town cards of Nsburg so you can have a look, and a bit of a laff, and see how this game project went from Nothing to Something in as short an amount of time.

Ironically, this game was really hard to research, because Nsburg is definitively confusing. And of course, none of what this represents is canon – there’s no sign in the QWERP continuity that Lack Fixlakeindianname is its name. I still had a lot of fun doing this and sharing it with people and I hope you tune in to Desert Bus and we see how it goes!

Shirt Highlight: Eat Trash, Live Free!

Australia and America both have a life form that we mostly recognise for its presence in garbage. One of them is the trash panda, and another is the bin chicken. And with that in mind, I celebrated these creatures that exist in our damaged world refusing to end.

You can get these shirt designs on Redbubble (Raccoon and Ibis) and on Teepublic (Raccoon and Ibis).

Solitaire, The Coded Cardboard

I think a lot about single player games.

I think about them a lot because it’s kind of the main way I have had to play board games most of my life. I didn’t have friends growing up. My sister and I weren’t on the same level – she could see different means to how games like Monopoly worked, and I never got the impression playing games with me was fun for her. This meant that I played a lot of solo ‘board’ games, sort of.

You know Solitaire? That game that we use as an example of a minimally interesting sort of videogame? I played it a lot growing up. I had a desk, I had a deck of cards from a Go-Lo, and I sat and actually played Solitaire, and Freecell, and I learned how those games worked from watching them work on a computer. I had to translate their rules. To this day I don’t know if Solitaire has some secret hidden rule to prevent broken arrest states.

Neither of these games has an ‘AI’ to them, but they’re solitaire games that present resistance. Solitaire itself is a bit like picking a big lock, constructed out of a bunch of parts that have no reason to care about how they were arranged previously. Solitaire is… interesting in that regard. It wasn’t made to make that lock – the game, the structure of it – is part of how that lock comes together. The rules impose on the pieces and create the puzzle. That is, the game is a code that creates the play.

I’ve sometimes murred about coding cardboard. What I find interesting is how do we make games like this, that are interesting solo experiences, where the play can be satisfying, and then, can we make that design space interesting to interface with? Solitaire’s metaphor is sorting your deck of cards, so what other stories can we impose on these complex locks?

And what can we do to make that fiction interesting as we work on it?

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.

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.

Shirt Highlight: Voregoisie

Inspired by a tumblr post, I made these designs.

What it says, in fancy font so fancy it’s hard to read, is Voregoisie: The Rich Are Made Of Meat.

Note, I do not recommend the literal eating of the literal rich. Consuming human beings is a good way to get yourself sick and run the risk of getting prions, which are all kinds of bad news.

Anyway, here’s the Voregoisie design in white and black.

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.

Notes: Giving Gifts

One of those things that happens when you develop some expertise (ha ha ha) in a field, you’re going to see your own expertise as an element in the works around you. You’ll see someone doing something and think oh, if only you knew what I did, and then the next thought, oh you should listen to me inform you of what you’re missing. That is, to say, learning can make you into a meddlesome tit.

But despite that warning, this whole thing about Christmas Presents is an interesting discussion of perceptions of values, of what we can value, but my immediate reaction upon hearing the premise, should you give Christmas Presents, and a question that viewed as a way of making people happy is that it’s a game.

Giving people Christmas presents – or any present really – is a game. It’s a game where I am trying to show you you. Now there are constraints – I can’t spend too much, or too little, and I can’t ask you (I mean, I can, but it deflates the game a little). There could be all sorts of mindsets for this game. I could view it as cooperative, where we both win if I get you something that satisfies you and vice versa. It can be competitive – you might be wanting more than you give, you might be wanting to use this to demonstrate power or competence over me, and you might even view it as a game with minimal participation. You want to get out of the game as fast as possible. That leaves all sorts of different attitudes towards the play of the game, but the time spent within this game is play. It’s creative. You test ideas out, you consider options, and then, crucially, with the thing that makes this game really interesting, you make your choice, make it obscured, and reveal that choice at the end of the game.

This is why giving money is gauche. It says I don’t know you. It also doesn’t have any interesting tension associated with it. We disguise gifts in funny boxes or with suspicious wrapping. We even tease one another with the decision.

Now I am studying play and the making of games, so obviously I’m going to see this. I could be fulla nonsense.

Still, good channel.

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!

The Scrap Bucket

Enduring, persistent, and easily ignored meme: You see someone else’s final draft and you see your own rough draft. It’s easy to forget you see the whole process and you only see the outcome of others’, so it’s easy to think you’re making garbage and other people are making great stuff.

I make a lot of garbage.

I am right now, up at 2 in the morning, with a notebook open in front of me, because I have assigned myself the task of daily blogging, and I want to make sure I do it, because if I’m not meeting all my goals, I might as well make sure I meet this daily goal. I am thirty seven articles ahead of my schedule here, and there have been times I have been sixty articles ahead.

Today I threw out a bunch of scraps.

  • An article about how being Australian means I have to pretend my childhood was like yours, American Reader, even if I know you’re not American, because America has colonised English internet
  • Another genders 101 article about how to just, stop talking about sex with trans people if you don’t actually want to have sex with them
  • An article about how sharing supportive memes can be really miserable (though not always)
  • A twine game about finding your pokemon nature based on your food preferences
  • Vague summary of my PhD meeting today. It went well! I think I hit upon wanting to make people centred technology but in this case technology refers to words
  • Something about primitives, which is a super useful term when describing design and super awful when describing people
  • An article about being angry.
  • An article about how sharing memes about how you love people even though you never put any effort into interacting with them is kinda shitty because it’s just saying ‘thanks for doing the emotional labour, and also I expect you to continue because I reblogged a cake.’
  • An article about why I don’t know what my swearing policy is on this blog especially because I swear a lot in real life and tried to avoid doing it in MTG articles
  • A project document for an RPG concept that I think I kind of want to keep in the oven to cook for a bit
  • Some example _plans for mechanics I haven’t been able to actualise
  • The story of why I wasn’t at SMASH! this year but you could still buy Senpai Notice me and LFG

None of these got made. None of them will. This is an example of scraps, of things I didn’t do in their immediate form. Maybe when I wake up I’ll feel like redoing one of them from the start. But at the moment? Nah.

I write every day. A lot of what I write I’m not happy with and feels like garbage. If you write something and don’t think it’s good enough, do not feel bad about putting it in the drawer and deciding to leave it alone. The practice of practicing is worth it.

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?

Notes: Sorted Bran Flake Cake

Here’s a thing that taught me something!

This recipe – set aside the laddish racing – is a really nice little dessert to make. I’ve done some experimenting with it and some findings so far.

  • The bran cereal can be replaced with muesli or oats. Dicing it up makes it more of a texture than ‘cake with stuff in it.’
  • You can put a lot of things in the bottom of the mug! I’ve done it with diced bits of apple, you can use apple saue, but also jersey caramels, or a dash of strawberry jam
  • You can stick things in the mix! I put in some chocolate chips and they came out of it nice, if they were small enough
  • This thing creates its own sauce with the brown sugar and milk, so you’re best off mixing it with flavours that go well with that, like apple and caramel or vanilla ice cream

 

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!

‘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.

King Hits in Poker

I’ve been watching poker videos lately. No good reason. But there’s something that fascinates me about poker as a strategy game.

First of all, poker is a strategy game. Set aside the actual money values, make the betting with markers or tokens or whatever. Treat them like hit points. Whatever. The point is, while playing with and for money makes poker more intense it doesn’t make poker not a game of strategy. While there are books on the topic, veritable libraries full of information about how to play poker, what to do when you’re playing poker, reading people, the particular generational behaviours of poker eras, all that stuff doesn’t work if there’s nothing to the game but the money aspect.

The money does connect it to a super interesting kind of materiality, but that’s for another time.

There are very few times in Poker where you’re compelled to give up money. Next to the dealer there are two players who have a forced minimum bet – known as blinds. Usually you’ll hear of two – the big blind and the small blind, and these are there so players can’t just constantly sit out of hands until they have something they want to play with. Blinds also mean that if you do have a good hand, thanks to your automatic bet, you can ‘hide’ it in the blind bet. After all, other players seeing you bet don’t know if you’d have bet if not for the blind.

What this means is that you do have to defend small bets (your blinds), you never have to defend your entire pool of money unless you choose to.

Back in The West Wing, Vice President and sex lizard John Honyes remarked that in Hockey, nobody knows what’s going on during the play. In Leverage, Elliot says he doesn’t like any game where you can’t score on defence. In poker, both of those things are true: As confident as you are, you can’t be sure of what your opponent is doing, and when you’re being the aggressor, you can lose everything.

It’s fascinating though, precisely because you can’t lose what you don’t risk. Your opponent can’t go after your bankroll, can’t make you bet. That means that most of the game is about back-and-forth cajoling, jousting with your opponent. Behaviour changes as your bankroll changes, and the game has a back-and-forth to it as chips change hands, but at the core, your opponent cannot control you, and you can only lose when you put yourself in a position to lose.

The game handles this by giving you a powerful incentive to make sure that you sometimes want to put yourself in a position to lose.