Before the Game Becomes a Game

http://www.hellblade.com/unseen-ninja-theory-razer/

Once game-making reaches a certain scale, the process of game-making becomes front-loaded with the process of convincing someone to pay for the development of your game.

If you play games but don’t make them, you may find this enlightening. I know that when I was younger, and particularly before I chose to make commercial games as my career, I took games for granted. As in, “I want to play a game, so I’ll go buy a game.” It never occurred to me how much decision-making went into the process. And now that I do this for a living, I feel a sense of kinship when I see someone else’s efforts in the process. Post-mortems and development conferences are fascinating, for example.

So here’s a look at the sort of thing I do all day when I’m not engaged in the nuts and bolts of actually making the game: I’m trying to convince someone who has the means — financial, labor, distribution — to make an idea become more than an idea, and begin its metamorphosis from idea to playable experience. (This isn’t a proposal I worked on, but it’s a good template for or inside view of the process.)

This sort of thing is usually hidden behind NDAs and other proprietary screens, but Ninja Theory has published some of its preproduction documentation that shows just how substantial and detailed pitching and pre-production can be.

GM Quickie: No Null Turns

When you’re running* a game, avoid making a player lose a turn. Game design doesn’t have many universal truisms, but this is one.

Players play games to fulfill needs. And when you prevent a player from taking an action, you’re literally preventing that player from having any ability to satisfy those needs. Paralysis, fear effects, stunning, etc. are all conditions that sound cool or thematic, but actually undermine the reason people play games to begin with: to see the outcomes of their actions, to improve at the actions in play, to relate to one another, and to exercise choice.

lio-lose-turn

Lio by Mark Tatulli

Instead, consider the following when you intend to create tension or anxiety by restricting a player’s ability to act:

  • Consume a resource to perform an action (which at least allows the player to decide whether acting is worth spending that resource)
  • Take actions at increased resource costs
  • Act at reduced efficiency or effectiveness (e.g. move or attack but not both, attack at a damage penalty, heal using a die one step down from the standard die, draw one fewer action card, etc.)
  • Act as normal with the input of another player (e.g. The cleric demands the player “Snap out of it!” which allows players to decide upon their own criteria for allowing each other to exchange a less effective action for a greater one)

If you’re not letting a player play, why are they at the table?

Note that, in most cases, it’s perfectly acceptable for a player to deprive a GM character of an action. The GM is often in the position of taking actions for multiple entities, and the nature of the GM’s participation is different from the way the player interacts with the game. Indeed, games that rely on creating strong tactical advantage (D&D 4e, Pathfinder, etc.) can actually benefit from depriving GM entities of their actions, as it streamlines play and hastens decision-making back into the players’ hands.

* or designing!

Branching the Flow Lines, Pt. I

“Getting into the dungeon” is usually a straightforward affair, and one without a huge amount of significance. It’s often glossed over; on occasion it’s used as a change to spring a tone-setting trap on unwary players or to deliver an ominous expositional portent. Moving through a dungeon is often similarly linear, offering a few more choices, but modern design by and large drives players through a series of escalating challenges to an ultimate “boss fight” or consummating set-piece conflict.

thracia-new-cover-c-red-66

Movement into and through contained physical spaces can be so much more than this, however. One of my favorite classic modules, Caverns of Thracia, provided numerous avenues of approach from the surface into the dungeon environment itself, as well as from within it to the lower levels. The eponymous Castle Ravenloft consists of a variety of branching hallways and catacombs. In general, when you branch the movement opportunities of a physical space, the emphasis of the game session becomes one of volitional exploration over overt conquest. Finding how and why to move where takes precedence over how to overcome what. (Which isn’t to suggest removing fights or other encounters, it just shifts the emphasis.)

Constructing location-based adventures with multiple choices and multiple points of ingress offers a host of satisfying decisions to players, and are equally as fulfilling to GM while watching the deliberations ensue.

  • Players can pursue an immediate short-term goal of discovering all the points of entry to the location
  • Players can choose their approach to the environment so as to best suit the party composition and strategy
  • Players can “shortcut” to deeper levels when they’re ready to undertake those challenges without retreading already cleared ares — unless a clever GM wants to repopulate the cleared areas to offer additional challenges and rewards

As you can see this provides a wealth of significant decisions for the players to make during gameplay, and it provides them numerous opportunities for action. Stuff like this is why people play games to begin with as opposed to consuming more sttaic media: to see the outcomes of what they do.

Practical Application

Dungeons in fantasy games are the most immediately obvious example.

The original Succubus Club for Vampire was set up with an “open floor plan” that allowed players to move through it and claim micro-territory in this most prestigious of Kindred hangouts, and even included a basement “labyrinth” for clubgoers who deliberately wanted to lose themselves in its environs.

succubus_club_dance_floor

Bars, dance floors, VIP booths, cocktail tables, the DJ booth, the coatroom, etc. can all be locations in a modern “dungeon,” with numerous ways to approach them.

Multiple choices can also capitalize on the themes of fear present in horror games, whether being lost in the caverns where a cult of Deep Ones worships in Call of Cthulhu or searching for your beloved in the mall’s service tunnels and boiler rooms in Monsterhearts.

Games like Spycraft, Night’s Black Agents, and Leverage can have “dungeon crawls” through environments like corporate skyscrapers, fallout shelters, derelict churches, apartment high-rises, and warehouse complexes.

Mazy spacecraft, military outposts, and planetary strongholds can translate the experience into games like Star Wars, Stars Without Number, and Starfinder.

And of course, post-holocaust games can adapt any of these locations and more, whether as leftovers from collapsed civilizations to new constructions erected by dangerous mutants or reavers.

While Designing…

The following techniques can help you design game spaces that offer a great deal of autonomy.

Make use of vertical space: Level one can have a staircase that goes down to level two, a sinkhole that connects level one to level two from a different room, an airshaft that leads directly to level four, and an elevator that stops at all levels. Giving players options for not only their route but their destination affords them the opportunity to challenge themselves and set their own goals. Used wisely, you will get a lot of mileage out of this design principle. In computer games, level design is a entire discipline, making extensive use of this technique. (And it’s no coincidence that Caverns of Thracia‘s original author, Jennell Jacquays, is an accomplished level designer for computer games.)

screen-shot-2017-01-28-at-1-14-16-pm

A cross-section of vertical space arrangement in Swords & Wizardry

Favor authenticity over realism: You can enter and exit the monster’s pit by being dropped through the trap door in the throne room floor… but also through the tight, twisty tunnels the vermin in the kitchen have burrowed. Who cares if the vermin don’t actually burrow and that it doesn’t make sense that the kitchen is next to the monster pit? What’s important are the choices and the thematic consistency, and to suggest that someone else down there has an interest in smuggling food to the pit monster….

Staged complexity: Not everything has to be available to the players immediately. Oftentimes, players will enjoy a chance to revisit a known, “mastered” portion of the location that poses new challenges. Over the course of the players’ exploration of the site, open additional options to them. Pulling a lever on level three opens an additional entrance to an unexplored section of level one. A room on the surface that’s initially inaccessible can be unlocked with the password offered by an NPC encountered in a lower level.  An entire floor can rotate, changing the layout of a “known” location and granting access to previously unknown areas. With weird magic or superscience, entire portions may even vanish or be revealed “when the stars are right” or other criteria are satisfied. Thus the additional options open to players once they’ve already been introduced to the location, so they’re not overwhelmed by it.

Designing for Resource Requirements

Blog necromancy! This entry is a few years old (cross-posted here from an older blog), but remains valid in terms of design philosophy.


In game design, “too powerful” is a misleading phrase. The actual design should reflect “It needs to cost more.” A power or effect should remain pretty true to its original design. Mind control needs to feel like mind control — you can’t take a little bit away from it and hope to elicit the same in-game effect or the same player enthusiasm. A lightning blast needs to be a levinbolt that electrocutes its target, not a wee spark that sizzles foes for a li’l bit of damage. Hyper-speed needs to be fast… no, faster than that. David Bowie’s cone of frost breath weapon needs to crystallize targets caught in the blast radius.

This isn’t to say that there’s no place for low-powered effects. Those certainly have their place, particularly in level-based systems* that gradually step up the potency of what players can do. In these cases, the price is still important, and they still need to be relative to the effect, so it stands to reason that the costs should be commensurately lower.

One of the design philosophies that resonates with me is that all special effects should feel overpowered. As the player, I’m the coolest thing in the game, so everything taking place in the game should reward me for being there. When I do something — particularly something that my character has as an edge, such as a superpower, special skill, or supernatural ability — I should say “WOW!” when I use it. This engages me and empowers me. This is one of my rewards for spending time with the game. This can be a visual effect in a video game, a chance to spend a unique resource in a board game, an effect only my character type can create in a tabletop RPG, or the ability to use a special type of card in a card game.

My choice in choosing a play style contributes a lot to this. If I’m a psychic spy, my WOW! moment might be using my psychic powers to command or confuse my enemies. If I’m a wizard, it could be an icy blast that freezes my enemies, causing them damage and immobilizing them. A fighter type can stun an opponent with a rabbit punch or disembowel him with a dagger.

The fact that it feels overpowered doesn’t mean it should be overpowered, though, and that’s where the cost to create effects comes in. A particle effect and some audio feedback in a video game can provide that overpowered-feeling WOW! for even an average effect. Rockets and missiles in EVE, for example, land with a resounding explosion that feels very satisfying. They don’t do inordinate amounts of damage, but they feel exciting when they hit. Every character class in D&D 4e has nifty “at-will” powers that feel unique and exciting, even though they really amount to little more than a basic attack with a minor bell or whistle attached. The Disciplines in Vampire make the Kindred a cut above mortals, and since there are way more mortals in the world than there are vampires, Disciplines are both rare and empowering. The prices to invoke all of these effects, whether it’s ISK-per-missile, blood points, or frequency, keeps everyone important — players — on the same playing field.

That’s the challenge — creating the feeling of awesome while still preserving the integrity of play through managing the cost of effects in resources.

* (Now, one of the perils of level-based systems is that the mathematical challenge increases in sync with the ability of the character, so that things often don’t really become more difficult, the numbers behind them simply become greater. In many of these cases, the character’s frequency of success remains about the same — he’s trying to reach a higher threshold, but his bonus modifiers to get there are higher.)

Design for Dependency

Class-based game systems are occasionally described as offering “niche protection” as part of their design. The cleric is a healer, and no one else heals as well as the cleric, for example. The rogue excels at dealing damage; the fighter withstands punishment like no other. The wizard controls the crowd and/ or damages wide areas. Each of these roles has a thing it does well, so the “niche protection” statement is true.

But, in a larger design sense, what niche protection actually offers is an ecology of dependencies that build relatedness between players. A party of four fighters won’t fare as well as a more rounded party, because many of the things fighters depend on aren’t offered by other fighters. (Of course, some systems offer ways to vary the makeup of various classes, but these variants are rarely as potent in their variant role as the core class structured to meet the dependency.) The cleric’s job is to keep everyone standing, something that no other class does as well; the other players depend on the cleric for this, accordingly. The fighter’s job is to keep threats focused on him; the other classes depend on the fighter taking the most heat so they can perform their functions. The rogue is augmented by sneak attack damage, so she eliminates threats quickly, but she relies on the cleric to keep her standing and the fighter to keep enemy attention on him.

classdependencies

Designing for these dependencies not only helps the player group maximize its effectiveness, but also helps strengthen the relationships between players. And since games are a social endeavor first and foremost, rewarding those relationships is ultimately a proven method of keeping the players engaged for the long term.

Using Decision Hubs

One way to allow greater player agency is to construct a “hub” from which core campaign elements radiate, making for a number of possible action points that are accessible from it. For example, if we assume that the PCs’ starting town is the hub, a storied dungeon, a cavern complex, and an abandoned mountain keep might all be proximate to that starting town. If the starting hub is a space station, a smugglers’ lair may be nearby, along with an asteroid belt where aggressive aliens hide and a dangerous anomaly from a precursor culture.

decision_hub

The opportunities for action radiating from the hub need not be physical locations, they can just as viably be non-location-based encounters or entities. For example, a vampire coterie’s domain may be immediately affected by rumors of Anarch turbulence, the appearance of fragments of the Book of Nod, and a sudden shift in nightlife that relocates the Rack.

Having a number of actionable choices radiating from the central hub serves both the players and the GM. For the GM, a number of options allows them to control the scope of their preparation. Without having to detail a full sandbox, a smaller number of encounter contingencies is more easily managed. For the players, a number of options allows them the volition to choose the course of action that most interests them, but doesn’t subject them to a decision-halting paradox of choice.

Importantly, decision hubs can scale to whatever challenge level at which the campaign takes place. This is especially valuable for starting or low-level campaigns, which can easily lead the players into feeling railroaded if they don’t feel that they’re making significant decisions.

Minimalist Character Sheet for an Undefined Game

Here’s a really simple design for an issue I’ve been looking at a lot: Character sheets can be frightening things. Looking at a single sheet of very-small-sized type and its associated blanks that must be filled in is not a terribly accessible or inviting activity. So, after being called out by Derek Guder, as a design challenge to myself, I thought about a way to make a character sheet that’s easy to read and lets a player know at a glance what the game experience will offer. I’ve been thinking about this a while, so it was a chance to turn doodles into something actionable.

 

I think this would work really well for narrative- or setting-focused games like Vampire (especially one-shots), Call of Cthulhu, or GUMSHOE, or maybe even power something like a tabletop trip through The Legend of Zelda or Shadow of the Colossus.

It begins with the following single premise to simplify game interaction that reduces the volume of information on the sheet itself.

A character’s abilities and vitality are a function of each other

That is, a character has a number of health units and each unit of health carries with it a special ability of the character. So, as the character loses health, the character also loses the ability to affect the game world and other entities in it.

So, for example, the following character has three health levels, and the abilities of Vanish from the Mind’s Eye, Command, and Poisonous Blood. When the character has suffered no damage, she can use any of those abilities.

MinChar

When the character does suffer damage, the player marks off health units from the top, and loses any abilities for which that health level has been marked off.

So, back to the example, the character has suffered one health level of damage, and has also therefore lost the ability to use Vanish from the Mind’s Eye.

MinChar2

That’s it. The sheet and a suggestion of the game in just a few geometric shapes and text keywords.

Permutations

Calling the health units health suggests physical conflict or wellness, but that doesn’t even have to be true, especially in settings that don’t rely on combat, or where physical combat is simply one facet of a more holistic system of conflict resolution.

death-comes-to-pemberley-ep2-hires

From Death Comes to Pemberley

This could just as easily be set at Pemberley, with units and ability loss themed as exhaustion rather than physical violence. It may represent the court of Kublai Khan, where running out of status results in disgrace and exile rather than explicit death. Perhaps the game is set in a shipwreck survival environment, where an abstracted amalgam of physical damage, exposure, starvation, and mental anguish are all part of the individual character’s well-being and represented by the health units. The entities players portray need not even be characters — a player may portray a starship, a society, or a super-intelligent shade of the color blue.

Heck, it doesn’t even require one sheet per player. What if the sheet represented a pirate vessel regardless of the number of players representing the crew? Perhaps the crew collectively makes decisions and the sheet simply records the capacities of the ship. A game like that would see the group dynamic inform the decision-making, and it wouldn’t even matter if the exact same player group made it to a weekly session, so long as one or more players were there to give the orders.

Scaling

As the character attains progression, whatever that means in the game’s terms, the player simply adds another ability to the queue. As such, character prowess increases in tandem with durability.

That’s not always the intent, though. For durable characters who aren’t necessarily exceptionally competent, an “empty” health unit could simply have no ability tied to it.

MinChar3

And a more fragile character could have a pair or more abilities associated with a single health unit.

MinChar4

Portability

Hey, this doesn’t even have to be a character sheet. These could just as easily be ordered cards, colored beads, or whatever translates best to the game format.

Dependencies

Obviously, a character sheet represents the visual point of access for a player’s interaction with the game world. Even though this is a very simple design, it implies other systems. Without an actual game here, the below are impossible questions to answer at this state, but would be worthy of thought.

Ability functions: In order for using and losing abilities to be important, abilities need to be defined. As well, they may or may not need a resource to be expended in order to vary their frequency of use or scope of effect. Or, you know, maybe not. Maybe they just work.

Conflict resolution: What causes a player to lose those health/ exhaustion/ disgrace units, and their attached abilities? Do only ability inflict unity-ability damage? Or is there a fundamental action that operates free from those restrictions?

Attrition: Does player elimination occur? If not, when does the player return to play after the character loses all her health-ability units? Are there any associated penalties? How many of the player’s original capacities return, if any, and if not, what new capacities does she have? What other consequences occur?

Progression: By what method does the player acquire new ability-units? How are they selected or awarded?