Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The leash

Occasionally, I try to write up a post that focuses in on a design aspect, using examples with something I'm currently working on. This is one of those posts. However, it feels like it came out a little more jumbled than it should have, and for that, I apologize.

Anyway, on with the show...

Early game prototyping can be thought of like walking an insanely active dog; you want it to be happy and go about following it's desired course, but you need to keep it under some amount of restraint, otherwise it gets away from you.

While I have no concrete evidence of this, my personal experience is that good games (like most creative processes) develop "on their own" fairly naturally with only gentle shoves and yanks of "the leash" as guides. It's a careful balancing act, games left to run by themselves become a mess pretty quickly, and require quite a bit of leashing mid-way in the design. And games that are under the heavy hand of the designer leash, with no intentions of wavering away from the original plan. Well, they don't go any where much at all. Every game project that I've been involved with professionally was never, ever considered to be "done" by the creators; just "finished enough" given the tightrope walk between the various constraints of schedules and finances on one side, and creative design work on the other. They are never perfect, but close enough to almost be happy with the final the output, as there is always at least one more bit of polish to clean up, or one more feature to add that the game absolutely requires, but at some point, as a designer, you have to stop, and move on.

The development process usually works like this (of course, your mileage may differ). Early on, after settling in on one or two "gimmicks" that the game is going to based around, I let the game go, adding features, or doing whatever the game feels like it needs. Ultimately, the gimmicks are the leash; these are the things that will guide the decisions made for the rest of the design process. But I allow the game to go off and explore other possibilities. Until, of course, the game has now become so bloated, or confusing, or misguided, that now is the time to yank the leash, and get the game back on a course. Editing out extra rules, or components, or things that don't seem to affect the original gimmicks, etc.

In most cases, letting the game "roam free" doesn't happen and develop in a vacuum. They require the ability to bounce off walls, knocking into other people, and going through various filters that other people have, through your usual playtesting experiences. In fact, the first few playtesting sessions of a game probably should mostly focus on the main gimmicks, making sure that they even work, without much attention to the side effects generated by the game running it's own course. These additions (and subtractions) should naturally come and go as they please.

Recently, I've been playing around with the Shipwrecks game (the current version can be downloaded off in the "Things To Play" section in the sidebar, listed as "Dark Water Salvage"). There's been a nice progression of the main gimmick, along with various levels of fluctuating game-defining rules.

Luckily, I'm a member of the Board Gamer Designers Workshop, which is a small group of geekiness dedicated to just playing game prototypes of our own creation. A sort of a bi-weekly Protospiel. So, there's no need to torture real players who might not understand the concept of how prototypes work.

As is usual of my designs, the game went through a few revisions even before the first playtest. As I've noted in a previous post regarding the use of windowed cards for hidden data, the main gimmick of the game is hunting for shipwrecks that are "hidden" in a lake. This hidden information system was originally being developed as a haunted house game; but things "weren't meshing" well at that point. This system initially was testing for directions using simple binary coding (Y or N). The binary "bar code" worked with deducing items back when it was a haunted house game, but now the game involved searching for a location, and the game cried out for a modified version of the system that more closely relates to that action.

And so, while the gimmick was kept the same, the data was reversed. By testing from various locations on the game board, you can get directional information regarding where a location is in relationship to the testing location. In this case to the left, the location is Southwest of the city of Missaukee (when Missaukee is stacked on top of the location card). So, while "the leash" of the stacked cards revealing hidden information is kept, the game was still allowed to form naturally around it.

During the first playtest, one of the main focal points was watching to see if this mechanic would actually work (it did). Other elements of the game around it did not, but that's fine. As the core interest point of this game is based on the the searching and locating function of this mechanic, those are adjusted or removed, and tested again.

At this point, I'd like to point out that there's almost no sense of trying to balance scoring, or creating a more "interesting" map, or any kind of fine tuning. It's an early prototype, and the basic functions of the game are still being fleshed out. In fact, after finding a major rules break in the second playtest, it became obvious what some fixes were required, and what was still broken...there was no need to finish.

As an additional aside...

One of the games we played was very much of a loosey goosey party game, whose main goal was seemingly guessing random numbers. The only information that you had to go on was that the current number to guess is less than the previous number on a card. Basically, no strategy or skill, just wild guesses for the most part. And while the designer was happy with what he implemented, this IS a group dedicated to board game geekery, and simple random guessing games don't cut it.

The results that came out of the discussion at least sounds like an interesting game. At least playing the game mentally. It still keeps it's party game roots, but has some elements of a mind game. For the most part, it was an idea that was "let loose" to see where it would go. As is typical of a brainstorming session, no leashes are attached.

For the fun of it, I've dubbed the name of the "Vezzini," in honor of the greatest mental skills battle ever filmed, the Battle of Wits from "The Princess Bride."

I imagine that the game winds up being played in a "well, I picked this because I think you picked that because I figured you'll think I'll pick this" kind of manner. I also imagine that the game could be potentially be terrible, too. Of course, this is solely what I consider to be the best version discussed, I'm sure other would have different opinions.

A (potentially irritating) battle of wits for any group of players

Give every player a pad of paper and a pencil.
Someone will also need to keep track of a running point total for each player on a separate sheet of paper.
Agree to a Target Score that determines the winner.

The game is player in rounds. In each round, the players will first determine who the Host is. Once a Host is determined, all players then battle the Host.

All players write down a number secretly on their pad of paper.
All player's reveal their number.
The player who wrote down the LOWEST value number, that is not tied with another player's selection, becomes the Host. All other players become Active Opponents.

The Host scores points equal to the number he wrote down.

A Battle consists of three rounds, in each round the host secretly writes down a number that MUST be lower than the number he previously wrote down. In the case of the first round of the battle, the number he writes down must be lower than the number he wrote down to become the Host.

All Active Opponents now write down their guess. Opponents can ask questions; the Host can lie or bluff, or refuse to answer.

Once finished, Active Opponents reveal their guesses, and the Host reveals his number.

If an Active Opponent guesses correctly, they stay Active; an incorrect guess renders them Inactive, and out of the remaining battle rounds.

The Battle ends when all Opponents have become Inactive, or after three rounds of Battle have been played. All Opponents that are still Active after three rounds (they have successfully guessed the Host's number three times), win points equal to 2 times the amount of the initial number the Host selected to become the Host.

...when a player has earned points equal to or greater than the target score.

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Fatal Frame, and other things that go bump in the night

Generally, when one thinks of "Survival Horror" in the video game world, the Resident Evil series will be the first name that pops up, followed by Silent Hill. To me, they both miss the point.

While both games can fall into a "survivoristic" mode, I've never found that much horror in them. Sure, Resident Evil has zombies, or mutants or whatever, but it's always been another run-around-and-shoot-stuff-that-moves game to me. It might as well be Nazis. You are trained military with guns, fer christs sake! You BETTER be able to survive those things. Walking around with a loaded shotgun doesn't really provide me with a sense of impending doom, knowing full well I can blast whatever beasty is around the next corner into 40 little pieces.

And Silent Hill, which dabbles more than a bit in the supernatural, winds up just coming off as just plain weird more than scary. Nothing like the little mutant babies that just follow you around in Silent Hill 1 to be creepy...but the strange mannequin monsters, sure they are definitely strange, but hardly scary. And the whole "pyramid head monster rape scene" is a bit over the top.

Nope, if you want a true scary video game experience, you need to pick up one of the games in the lesser known Fatal Frame series.

Fatal Frame does scary the right way. You aren't running around with guns ablazing, not that guns will do you any good anyway against the ghosts. All you've got is a camera that, given enough time to focus, will "capture the essence" of the attacking spirit in question.

But, really, the scariness goes beyond the combat.

The camera is equipped with a raspy buzzer that alerts the player when something supernatural is around. And just because the buzzer starts going off, that doesn't mean you can see what's making it buzz. Sometimes it's an attacking ghost, other times it's a hidden "key" that must be photographed to be revealed to progress in the game. Occasionally it's a random haunt by a wandering spirit that has no care about you.

In other words, it doesn't just instantly jump monsters out at you, but alerts you to the fact that something MAY be jumping out at you in the very near future. Which makes a lot of difference.

I've recently started revisiting Fatal Frame due to the fact that there's a Fatal Frame 4 coming out in Japan for the Wii (exclusive). Which means, hopefully, a winter U.S. release.

Fatal Frame
is the gold standard as far as I'm concerned in trying to make a haunted house game work well. It's one of my design goals to somehow capture the spirit of it in a board game format. Somehow. Some day.

There already exists a fan-created Fatal Frame card game in print-and-play format. The game uses imagery from the video game source well to make a very pretty looking game. But ultimately, like most adventure-ish card-based games, it's a collection of CCG-like cards that interact with each other, that tell the basic story of a Fatal Frame-like game. Which is fine, but I'd love to see a method that can somehow create a general sense of uneasiness and spookiness, if not real scares.

Granted, that wish of mine is a hard target to meet. The emotional responses that something like Fatal Frame creates is due to the complete sensory look and sound of the game, and of the pacing of various elements. It's tough to get that out of a pile of quiet cardboard.

Anyway, in my search for info on Fatal Frame 4, I've come across some pretty funny YouTube videos of a bunch of guys playing the Fatal Frame games, which give you a pretty good sense of the "jumpiness" Fatal Frame provides. Now, I have no idea if "Brad" in the videos is really freaking out, or if he's just joking around, but the videos are pretty hilarious.

And, I should note, the audio is rated:

The one brilliant thing that Fatal Frame does that really enhances the scare factor is that the game lets the player switch from your standard 3rd person viewpoint when exploring to 1st person, which is required to take a photo through the camera (to deal damage). The 3rd person lets you see things out of the corner of your eye, and the 1st person really captures a claustrophobic feel, as it's easy to lose the ghost while in "battle view." And then when you least expect it, that ghost which looked far away in 3rd person view is actually right on top of you.

"It's a f***ing doll!"

"Wait a minute, they want me to look through here..."

"Oh, and there's blood all over the mirror."

"It's like The Ring!"

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Wednesday, July 02, 2008

The incestuous industry

Probably one of the most common laws of any creation/design project is the belief that whatever you are currently working on, no matter how awful or banal it truly actually is, is that it is going to be one of the greatest things ever. Or, at the very least, very good. It is, after all, your little baby that you are spending hours on that you could otherwise be doing limitless other things during that time, potentially more successful. But when you've got the design bug, it doesn't matter really; after all, one of the reasons you are designing something is that you think you've got a better way (or an idea with a better result) than what is currently out there.

And, given a forum to talk about this madly exciting new thing that you are shaping, of course, you will have an inclination to hype it up.

But do you have the right to hype it in the guise of a quasi-reporter?

The boardgame geek hobby, as much as many fans would like to believe, is a pretty small niche. For the most part, it is comprised of many tiny publishers, most of whom are working day jobs, eeking out sales that are probably lucky to sell 3,000 units. Sure, there are those who may be considered to be wildly successful, such as Z-Man and Days of Wonder; but even by those successes are really tempered by comparison to the niche hobby itself, and not by the mainstream. There's a reason why Hasbro bought out Cranium, and not Days of Wonder.

Anyway, given the nature of this small niche, there's bound to be some amount of "insider incest" going on. Hiring and marketing from within the realm of the known hobby space, as it were. Which winds up creating some interesting partnerships. Sure, from the publisher's point of view, you know that the people you are involved with have their heart and soul placed in the exact market that you want. But from the casual fan's viewpoint, things now need to be taken with a grain of salt. Incestuous Industry Insiders aren't a necessarily a bad thing, but again, their viewpoints are a bit skewed. You just have to be careful of those who report on the news that they, themselves, are creating.

And so, with that, enter Dominion. At his blog, Seth Jaffee had an observation about this upcoming game. And while he's approaching it from a what-does-this-title-do issue, there's another issue that caught my interest.

Valerie Putman and Dale Yu are both regular bloggers at boardgamenews.com, which is for all practical purposes, is the one-stop shop for designer game news and information for the fans of the genre. Sort of a kotaku for boardgame geeks. Unlike boardgamegeek.com, which is more of a forum or database for fans, BGN is really the daily news update on the industry (again, from a "hey look, you fans, we've got news for you!" angle.)

Now, both of these people have been hyping the game for quite some time now, initially as a mysterious Game X. At least going back to the last Gathering of Friends top secret meeting (itself, a fairly incestuous event, I imagine). But, from all details that I can remember, it's always been as a reporter-ish kind of way, as if from a distance.

But now, it appears there's more of a personal stake involved.

So, now in the case of Dominion, here you've got two of the more well-known bloggers of the industry trying to spread the news of the "next great game," which just happens to be their baby, so to speak. Of course, we don't know how much of a personal stake they truly have, but at some point, it begins to look fishy. Early on, it seemed like they were both simply stating the facts of "Oh, I played this wonderful new prototype at The Gathering" or whatever. But now, they are reporting on a game where they acknowledge that they are more than just "active supporters." And as is human nature, something that you are creating becomes your baby, and you lose true objectivity.

I personally like this comment from Valerie's latest post about Origins, a fairly big game fair that was recently held in Ohio:

I also didn’t miss out on the hottest new game at Origins , since Dale and I were the ones teaching Dominion.

The hottest new game is still currently a prototype? Maybe within the small confines of a select group of knowledgeable insiders, sure. But I doubt for the ENTIRE FAIR. Of course, prior to this, she lists all these other games that were new to her, but didn't play, so to be fair, it seems she really didn't spend much time around the fair except for the small sampling of players who played her game.

Additionally, as developers they both also don't mind pumping up the game's ratings either. Plus a ton of insider-ish playtester ratings. I wonder what their ratings will be when the game is actually debugged! Crank that rating up to 11! Would any designer rate their own game a 3?

And with many things geek-related, once someone is told that something is cool, many a geek will follow along, just because, well, because someone said it was (and, let's face it, there's not really THAT much information of cool things on the horizon coming out on a daily basis in boardgame world).

Of course, the game may actually be this fantastic, or simply very good, or whatever. But it definitely shines a different light on their reporting of the game, as their mere association with the game is now muddied.

On a side note, I used to work for a company that got a reviewer fired for one of the industry magazines for giving a bad review of one of their games. Well, "fired" wasn't quite the word that they used. But that's another story for another day.

And as a final extra, there is something humorous about Ted Alspach running a series of Board2Pieces comics about the hype behind Dominion. Especially since he himself, is a designer of sorts (thereby making himself another incestuous industry insider) and while he does make mention of his countless Age of Steam variant maps, at least he never advertises them as the Next Great Thing. Even though he does shill his own game ratings.

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