Numbers, and System Transparency

On my way home from work today, I began thinking about the numbers that games show us next to character stats. No, I don't know why. Specifically, how pointless and confusing they are.

Anyway, I got to thinking about how meaningless they tend to be, especially early in the game. Alice has a "5" in their primary Magic stat and Bob has a "6." We know 6 is higher than 5, but without any unit of measurement or point of comparison, it's a pretty useless fact to be given. 5 and 6 out of what? A one point difference in magical ability doesn't really mean anything in a game like Disgaea, where getting any given stat to five figures is no big deal, but in a game like Fire Emblem where you're not going to bust 20, it could mean the world.

For that matter, what about equipment? Is a ring that gives me a +5 in Magic more useful than a piece of armor that gives me an extra 20 HP? That can be even harder to know, especially because HP never seems to follow the same rules as the rest of the character's stats.

What I'm getting at here is that I think there should be some effort made towards transparency in character capabilities. I'm not sure what the best way to do this might be. Percentage based scores are one thought. "+20% chance to dodge enemy attacks" tells the player a lot more than "Dodge: +20."

I've been thinking for a long time that it'd be a cool idea to try and do away with all the meaningless numbers altogether--just give the player more descriptive but less specific information. Like rating their stats as "Good," "Excellent," "Bad," "Awful," or the like. Or maybe just using letter grades. I dunno, though. Any thoughts on the Numbers Racket?

Honest Challenge, and Positive Reinforcement

A lot of the arguments I get into in other threads seem to come down to a basic difference in game design philosophy than some of the other people on the board. I thought I would dedicate a thread to it instead of letting it keep coming up in other threads. So, once again, I've decided to show off my basic incompetence vis a vis brevity, and drop a stream-of-consciousness-dump on you.

So there seems to be recurring philosophy in the mind of game makers that basically boils down to your players being your enemy. The line of thinking seems to go that you are in direct competition with your players, and that you should pull out every stop to make sure that they do not have an easy time beating your games.

Now I love a good challenge, and in fact some of my favorite games are fiendishly difficult--I'm a huge fan of Treasure shooters, and almost always go after the insane things that RPG developers expect you to do in the postgame.

Problem is, a lot of the difficulty that I find game developers falling prey to isn't legitimate difficulty. It's not clever AI that's difficult to outsmart, or an infernally difficult puzzle to be solved. It's 1980's arcade bullshit, like limited numbers of continues, or puzzles that the game has given no indication of the nature of, or clumsily used rubber band AI, or randomly changing the game's genre or the rules of how the game is played. These are not fun challenges or real challenges. These are the challenges of lazy developers. The same sort of developer who makes a "difficult boss" in an RPG by just doubling the HP. (Which, by the way, is part of why I haven't brought up multiple difficulty levels. Generally speaking, especially in RPGs, they do little more than changing certain constants to decrease the damage the hero does or increase the damage enemies do, or both, which tends to feel artificial and stupid.)

So anyway, when challenge can be made fun, I enjoy a good challenge. But here's the thing: I recognize that not every gamer is like me. There are plenty of people out there who just want to get through the game, either to get to the next step in the gameplay evolution (this especially applies in RPGs and Adventure games), or because they've only got a limited amount of time to finish the game, or in some cases even because they want to see the next plot development.

So the issue here is this: you have an audience made up of both people who want to be challenged, and people who just want to have fun. By making a game challenging in such a way that the second group can't do what they want to do, you are actively alienating a significant portion your audience.

Okay, so maybe you're okay with that. "My game is significant, and only the truly elite will recognize its greatness." That's fine--it's not like the size of your audience is all that matters. But to my mind, there's nothing more affirming about the making of games than the knowledge that you're entertaining as many people as you can, even if you've never met them. If there is ever a time when you can reach more people without alienating the people you're already aiming for, it's crazy not to take advantage of that opportunity.

Which is why I feel that the majority of problems of this nature can be dealt with in a very easy manner: stop punishing your players, and start rewarding them. Taking things away from your players, like items, powers, or even just their time is basically biting the hand that feeds you. These people are deigning to play your game (never think you're the one doing them the favor. If you're an amateur, chances are you haven't earned the right to think that way yet, and even if you have it's probably a good way to evolve into what psychologists refer to as a "total dick."), so it's pretty counterintuitive to throw rocks at them like that. When you force them to sit through tedium (for example: cutscenes they've already seen, puzzles they've already solved, maps they've already been to that haven't had some pretty major changes made to them, Mr. Resetti...), you're punishing your player. When you take away something they've already earned, something that might very well be the reason they play the game, you're punishing the player. When you start flashing colored filters on the screen and play annoying noise to induce epileptic shock, you're punishing your player. And possibly assaulting him.

And the thing is....none of that is necessary. You do not have to punish your player for making mistakes, or not overcoming all the hurdles you've set for them. Instead, why not reward them for their victories? Stop taking things away from the bad players, and start giving bonuses to the good players. Everyone gets to get through the game, face the monsters, see the puzzles, hear the music, whatever it is that's the "draw" for your game. But the ones who do it best get some extra stuff.

To give an example, XBox 360 and PS3 both have Achievements these days (And I think Steam has something similar, on PC), which provide a great way to reward players who do challenging things without punishing players who don't. Tales of Vesperia's a good example of how RPG's can use this sort of system. The game itself is not very difficult at all. But pretty much each boss fight has some "Secret Mission:" special criteria you have to fulfill to get an achievement for having beaten them. On top of that, for people who don't care about achievements but still want some sort of reward for going above and beyond the call of duty, you tend to get better drops from the bosses when you pull these special missions off.

The player who doesn't wish to challenge himself and pull off these things is able to keep playing the game without really losing anything significant. Maybe the players who are taking the challenges are getting a few weapons earlier because of synthesis or something, but that's about it.

There's no reason our games couldn't implement something similar. I mean no, it doesn't show up on your Gamer Card or anything, but it still feels good to look back on a record of some of the cool stuff you've accomplished, even if you don't really have a chance to lord it over anyone else.

In the end, positive reinforcement means you're not alienating either audience. Hardcore gamers get their stuff to be proud of, more casual gamers get to just play the game.

tl;dr: Stop punishing your players, reward them instead, and for god sakes don't be proud of how difficult your game is unless it's because the puzzles are incredibly elegant or your AI is too clever by half.

Or unless you're making bullet hell shooters. I will forgive ridiculously unforgiving bullet spam that relies on memorizing levels in that case.

RMN Roleplaying Group: SECOND TRY!

Well it looks like the last attempt at an RMN Roleplaying group fell through. With the school year ending and my busy period at work coming to a close, I thought I'd try to get things going again. Anyone interested in trying to start up a new campaign? Last one was D&D 4th, which I'd like to try again, but I don't insist on it, so feel free to suggest a different system if you want to try it out.

Other than D&D 4th, I've got BESm 2 & 3, Tristat dX and access to GURPS, D&D 3rd, and some of the better known White Wolf games, so those would be my favored systems. Anyone else interested and want to pull anything together? And is anyone interested in being GM?


All right, according to the EA download manager, Spore releases in two hours (or at least, that's when EA will let me install it), so imagine my surprise that we don't have a topic dedicated to Spore.

So we all know Spore, yeah? You'd have to be living under a rock not to. It's EVO-meets-Civilization-meets-Sim-Life-meets-Electroplankton, from what we've been told, with a heavy emphasis on user generated content. It's the most (over)hyped game to ever exist.

Who's eagerly awaiting the release? Who's lost all interest? And who has already played it? I'll just play along and pretend you people who have played it live in Australia and didn't just download it off of a torrent =P.

I've heard that pirates aren't enjoying it as much as they had hoped, but then they also don't get other users' creations in their games, I hear, so they're missing out on a major aspect of the game it would seem. Anyone care to weigh in?

Preview on Articles/Tutorials/Etc.

This seems like a no-brainer, but a preview button on Articles, Tutorials, what have you would be killer. I've just submitted an article and went back and editted it....and then found another edit I wanted to make AFTERWARDS.

Now I mean I do that all the time on Forum Posts, but because articles resubmit for approval when you edit them, I assume you guys just got three messages about my article within a minute of one another.

...also, it's handy for checking formatting. I hate using an italics tag and not realizing I forgot to close it until the thing's already been submitted.

Zero to Sixty - Musings on the Cancers Besetting Amateur RPGs and Thoughts About Potential Cures

Good gods, this post is going to be way too long and there's no way anyone's going to read it. I was going to submit it as an article, but I'm not sure enough about any of it to set it in stone just yet. I need discussion and it's never going to happen if everyone is suffering from "TL:DR"itis. -_-

So with all this talk about getting people to play games made in the community lately, I started asking myself "Why do I so rarely find myself playing or even giving games made in the community a chance?" A lot of it is just habit--I've been in the community for several years at this point, and I learned pretty quickly what to expect from games (so much chaff that it's hard to make yourself search for the wheat), and it's made me jaded. That's my problem and I've got to deal with that myself, but perhaps part of the problem is in the way that amateurs think of the games they're making.

I've come up with some thoughts that I wanted to share, but mostly this is going to apply almost entirely to RPGs and games that are spiritually descended from RPGs. Also, this might come off as a little harsh. I don't mean it to be, but I need to get these thoughts out here to see whether addressing them helps to dispel the demons out there. If you disagree then please, respond and tell me why. This isn't meant to be an attack, it's supposed to be a call to arms. Or something.

RPGs are an interesting topic in game design because a big part of their fun depends on a Very Bad Thing, game design wise. You start off crippled, barely able to do anything. You can attack monsters with your weapon, and maybe you'll have a special attack that you can use once or twice per dungeon. Now the nature of RPGs leaves you well aware of the fact that in about ten to fifteen hours, you'll probably have all sorts of options available to you, and all sorts of strategic possibilities available to you. Just....not now.

Now in a commercial RPG, this is something that fans are willing to do. There's a budget behind this game and a cadre of programmers and game balancers who will, supposedly, ensure that the game will be fairly competent at some point, even if it's pretty mediocre. If nothing else, there will be pretty things to see on screen and hopefully the story will keep you chugging along despite the fairly lame beginnings.

...okay, now let's look at Indie RPGs. First off, if this game is going to be ten to fifteen hours, it better be amazing. We're talking Cave Story amazing here. So already we know that gameplay evolution is going to have to go faster or at least be more dramatic. But then another issue crops up that turns things on their heads. I have no reason to believe that you know what you're doing. You're not making money off of this, you don't have any credentials other than word of mouth, and you're working alone, or at most in a small group of people with similar lack of credentials.

There's no reason a person or group in that situation can't do something great (See: Cave Story), but there's no barrier to entry, and there's no editorial oversight. Anyone can do it. It's like Fanfiction, or Webcomics. Yeah, the best of the best are unwashed amateurs, but they make up only the top .01%. The rest of the unwashed amateurs are generally less enjoyable than some of the worst commercial stuff.

Okay, so what I'm getting at here is: I can't depend on your ability to make the gameplay evolve into something that will intrigue me more than what I'm seeing right now. I can't depend on you to intricately weave rising and falling tension in a competent narrative. I can't depend on your art to get better or your soundtrack to improve or for all the foreshadowing and symbolism to resolve itself in a satisfactory way.

In other words: you have very little time to win me over.

With amateur games I think there might be a need to hit the ground running, in terms of the experience available. You need to wow me immediately with something about your game--if you can't do it with gameplay it needs to be with graphics or sound. A lot of you swear by intense narrative, but it's very unlikely you'll be able to have a really impressive story before I lose interest.

Him has discussed the merits of episodic gaming for our little indie thing....small chunks of game that you can digest quickly and, if you enjoy them, move on to the next one. That's a great idea and I wholly support it....but I wonder if we shouldn't be looking at the episodic model in more ways than one: not just episodic games, but episodic television. Television has for years had to deal with short attention spans, a small amount of time to tell the story in, and maintaining arcs over entire seasons at a time. I think this might be exactly the sort of thing that indie RPG developers should be taking their cues from.

Short stories, told in a number of quick vignettes, that hit hard and keep the audience drawn in quickly. None of this "everything will make sense in a couple of hours" malarky. Allow the battle system to shine right out the gate. Give the player a reason to love the thing before the first episode is over. Because if you don't they might not make it to the second.

That's not to say there can't be evolving gameplay, because that's a core aspect of the RPG experience. But you can't start at no options and slowly give the player more. You need to start off with a decent number of options and give the player more.

Even if you're not working in an episodic format, it might be helpful to break the story up into episodes logically--you don't have to tell the player this, just think in terms of "This is when the first episode ends--have I given the player plenty of reason to move on to episode two? And to three after that?"

You should treat your game like you're fighting a losing battle against ADD. Because you are.

Amateur RPGs are a different beast than commercial ones. We need to think about them in a different way. It's something Him's been saying for a while now, so I'm just reiterating that point, but it's worth repeating. Don't model yourself after Squenix. In fact, maybe you shouldn't model yourself after anyone--as much as I love a few of the things done in the community, I can't think of anyone who got it 100% right on the RPG front. Our community has yet to produce its vunderkind. So there's an open position just begging for someone to fill it. But you're not going to fill it by trying to make the next Final Fantasy. You're going to fill it by doing something that no one else imagined, or at least something that no one else could accomplish.

As a post script, I'm going to add that the "Editorial Oversight" deal is playing on my mind still. It's an interesting issue and one that it might be interesting to figuring out how to deal with. Some way to reign in a creative person's devotion to their "vision" to make a game more playable for an audience. I can feel you artistic types pulling away from me even as I say that, but limitations on creativity can lead to some of the best work from creative types--it's a big part of why the original Star Wars trilogy was so much better than the prequel trilogy.

Forum D&D Game (UPDATED: Finalized Details) JOIN NOW!

So if anyone's been following Game Design and Theory lately, Dungeons and Dragons keeps coming up as examples to follow for video game RPGs. Maybe it's just that Fourth Edition just came out....or maybe it's because we're a bunch of meganerds.

So anyway, my fellow meganerds, it brings up the question: why haven't we started a forum DnD game? Not only are there apparently those among us who love PnP RPGs, but there's also a lot for non PnP'ers to learn about RPG theory in general.

So what's say we run a game? I'm not sure of the logistics and how it needs to be handled (I'm not a big fan of Play by Post, but I don't mind IRCing it up. There are other options available, though, like OpenRPG and probably some sort of voodoo using Ventrilo or Skype that anyone with experience can throw in), but I'm more than willing to do my part. I'll play Dungeon Master if no one else will, though I don't insist on that role just because I broached the subject--if anything I'd like to play.

So, discussion in this thread about how to set up a game, which version to run (I'm partial to 4th just because I haven't had a chance to play it yet, but it might be easier to throw together a 3.5 game), and what tools we'll be using to play. Assuming anyone's even interested. I'll take a lack of responses to mean "Oh, Shadowtext, you nerdy, nerdy person! Don't you know that the rest of us have lives?!"

(Also, let's keep it to Dungeons and Dragons for this first game because it's the best-known of PnP games, and therefore easiest to obtain. If it goes well I'd be more than willing to explore the option of a PnP Club type dealie for holding the same sort of thing using whatever different systems the players/DMs want).

I have posted the finlized details for joining the campaign and making your characters. The post can be found here: Finalized Details

Stories in Games: A Counterpoint to Usual Thinking

Orson Scott Card, a famous science fiction writer whose Ender's Game is being made into a movie (and a couple of video games, apparently) has recently weighed in on stories in video games, and said something that goes contrary to a lot of thinking in the RPG Making Community:
"Games CAN'T have the kind of storylines that movies and books have, or they wouldn't be playable. You are correct to skip the tedious, badly written "scenes" that are usually a pathetic job of trying to paste story on top of a game."

Now like I said, a lot of us would probably get furious at this remark. But I'd like to provide a counterpoint and support what Card is saying here. Games are, at their hearts, an exercise in interactivity. The entire point of a game is to put someone into a situation, present them with rules and give them a goal. Sometimes they're competing against other people, sometimes they're competing against the computer, but it's basically always just a challenge to overcome. Anything that gets added on top of that is just garnish, so to speak. We add graphics so the player can see what he's doing, and sound to keep him from getting bored (and to help him get in the right mood, on occasion). And in recent years, stories have become a major part of that.

Now that's all well and good. Card isn't saying games shouldn't have any story, and I certainly wouldn't support him if he was. Stories can be very helpful for getting the player invested in the goal that's being presented, thus making the eventual goal that much more tantalizing.

The problem arises when the story becomes the driving force in the game. When the writer on a project becomes too tied up in a game's "canon" plot, and in forcing the players to go through the game in a certain way, the game begins to suffer and edge towards that unplayable situation Card has been talking about. Compounding that fact is that, even in the professional sphere, almost no games have really good writing. I can think of a handful--the Phoenix Wright series and the Lucasarts Adventure games come to mind pretty quick--but not very many. Most people who I see on the internet are not as good at writing as they think they are. I'm not trying to be mean here, but if you find yourself thinking "Well he's just talking about all those other people. They do suck!" It might not hurt to really examine your work. Get people outside of the community to read it....but be careful who you choose. A lot of people will just pretend to like it because they assume you're sensitive about your work (And a lot of people are. More than they think.), or they'll find some totally inconsequential thing to criticize because they assume it'll get them out of having to say anything that actually matters and might hurt your feelings, like "I think Soufflé would've been more entertaining if she had a French accent." (I speak from experience, here. It's one of my favorite tricks for commenting on other people's stuff.)

So anyway, yeah. If you're focusing on story, sit down and reassess your game. What are its strengths as a game? Why would people want to play it? Why does it work better as a game than a novel, or a film? Is my writing really good enough to make people trudge through it to get to the scraps of gameplay I'm willing to throw their way?

A few closing thoughts:
1.) Games that don't take themselves seriously often seem to be the ones that have the better writing. Phoenix Wright and the Lucasarts Adventure games, which I mentioned above fall under this heading, for example.
2.) This doesn't apply to machinima or whatever we decide to call those non-game film-y-thingies made in gaming engines like RPG Maker. Probably Visual Novels don't count either, since they're barely even games to begin with.
3.) I encourage discourse here. I know this is likely to be a somewhat controversial stand for me to make, so I fully expect arguments. Make them, but make them good!

The full text of the Orson Scott Card interview can be found here, by the way:

Problem in the Games section

Hey, I didn't report this when I first noticed it, but the Games section has been a bit wonky for a couple of hours now. Anytime I click on a project, it takes me to an "Internal Service Error" page.

I'm not in any sort of hurry, as I was just going to browse through them anyway, but I thought you might not know. I know how much of an annoyance it can be when aspects of your site go down that you don't even know about!
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