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Archive for October, 2010

…or consent.

Hat tip Victor for this one.

China’s War Beyond Azeroth

Imagine your own political commentary on this one.

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My preteen niece seems to have a bit of game design in her blood.  She experimented with the design of Phase 10 and a standard deck of playing cards and wound up with her own game… almost a Rummy-light.  Since Phase 10 is part of the Rummy family, that’s not a huge surprise, but it’s interesting to see her chasing down those game design principles and applying them in new ways.  It’s instinctive, it seems, rather than the sort of analytical approach I might have used.  Color me impressed.

She also designed another game from the ground up, a curious little game that has little resemblance to anything I’m familiar with.  It’s pretty solid for a small game, and I’m still trying to suss out the strategies and balance.  She does all this game experimentation and design simply with a deck of cards, just noodling around with ideas.

That sort of game design experimentation is something I’ve tried to capture with a recently purchased set of dice.  It’s a standard role player’s collection, seven dice of varied shape.  There is one twenty sided die, one twelve sided die, two ten sided dice, one eight sided die, one six sided die (the ever-popular cube) and one four sided die.  These are usually abbreviated as D(whatever) dice, with the twenty sided die labeled a D20, and the six sided cube labeled a D6 and so on.  It’s a nice spread of dice, with a variety of potential applications.

I’ve tried to come up with math games using them to teach my children.  I’ve tried to use them to teach my niece a little about game design.  I’ve used them to play with variations on themes I see in games that already use dice, like Warhammer and Settlers of Catan (which plays differently with a D12 instead of 2 D6).  It’s nice to have these dice for when I want to experiment with a bit of randomization, but want to try something a bit less common than the standard D6 collection.

I’ll share a couple of rudimentary games, then, in the hopes of spurring some thoughts and conversation.  I’d like to see what else might be done with this set of seven dice.  I’m still experimenting, but I’d like to hear other ideas, if you’re willing to share.  I’ve been keeping things simple; no board, no cards, nothing much more than scorekeeping.  That’s not the only way to design, and certainly not a restriction for conversation, but it’s been nice to keep things simple while I’m getting a bead on exactly what I can do with these things.

Game One:  Pick n’ Roll (2-7 players)

Each player picks a die (youngest player first), then rolls their dice.  Highest number rolled wins.

Simple, maybe too simple, but gives young children the chance to see the differences between dice and hopefully, to relate shape to numbers.

Game Two:  Roll n’ Toll (2 players)

Remove one D10.  Player one picks a die, then player two picks two dice, then player one picks two dice, then player two picks one die.  Both players roll all three of their dice.  Highest number rolled wins.  (Alts:  Start with two sets; D20,D6,D4 vs. D12, D10, D8.  Players just choose a set.  Highest total wins.)

A bit different choice involved, and with the Alt rules, a more equal chance to win.  Even with equal total potentials (max of 30 if using either set), the “swingy” D20 will make for a sporadic win pattern.  Minor addition practice for kids, some probability considerations.

Game Three:  Mix n’ Match (2 or 3 players)

Roll one D10, rolled number is the target number.  Players choose a set and roll.  Closest roll to target number wins.  Use these sets if two players:  D20,D6,D4 vs. D12, D10, D8.  Use these sets with three players: D20, D4 vs. D12, D6 vs. D10, D8.  Any of their dice count for target roll.  (Alt: Use any simple math functions using your dice results to get close to target.  Ex:  Target = 6, rolls = 2,8,10.  8/2 = 4, 10-4 = 6.)

More math potential, estimation of probabilities to match target.

Any of these could, of course, be mixed and matched.  You could also add complexities and other players like this:

A third, neutral player (Judge) rolls the extra D10 and keeps the number secret behind their hand.  The other players roll one of their dice (they have either two or three, depending on how many players), and the Judge tells each player if their result is higher or lower than the target (if this first roll matches the target, declare an immediate winner and move to another round, ignore ties).  Each may choose to keep that roll (lock their choice) or roll another die.  Repeat for as many dice as you have (2 or 3), if the player chooses.  Previous rolls are ignored; only the latest roll may be the locked number.  When each player has a locked number, reveal the Target, and the closest roll wins.

These are pretty simple math games. You could introduce some sort of brinkmanship mechanic, or a bluffing mechanic. Maybe use the dice not for their numbers, but for their shapes. Maybe see who can stack the dice better and/or faster. See who can spin one like a top for the longest, and which dice spin better. There area lot of things you can do within the seven dice box before you ever try thinking outside the box.

So what would you do with this set of seven dice?  What can you do with just those dice?  Maybe add in a pad of paper?  A few coins?  A whole bag of varied dice? Miniatures of some sort? A game board?

I start with seven dice because that’s a nice, streamlined set of data.  It’s great for number games for kids, and might just help nail down some balance issues before layering a bunch of complexity into the system.

Whatever the limitations you choose for yourself, like my niece’s game design experimentation with a deck of standard playing cards, I believe it’s a good game design exercise to work with simple game units and see what sort of games you can come up with.  Once you have a feel for those simple elements, you can start introducing a few new factors and see how everything interacts.  What works with 7 dice may blow up with 15, and what works fantastically for two players might be painfully political with three.  Something perfectly balanced for three players might fall apart with four players.  Hidden information might make a game better or just frustrating.

Like learning any new language or skill, playing with basic elements is useful for comprehension.  Complexity and shiny blinginess can be added as occasion permits.  Nail down the core game design first, and become fluent with the tools, and then branch out.

Interestingly, after I’d written this but before I posted it, Raph Koster reposted an essay about The Fundamentals of Game Design, and how designing in small pieces can be a good approach.  His “prototype kit” is a bit more than seven dice, but it’s still pretty simple compared to some final games.  Really nailing down the basic elements of a game should, in my mind, take precedence over any of the window dressing, including art.  Even Wizards of the Coast famously does iterative design with what they call “playtest” cards long before they get the artists on board.  Game first, trappings later.  As an artist, I do believe that art and appeal are important, but without a solid game to hang them on, they just can’t do much.

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No, not that Anvilania, my Anvilania in Minecraft.

I bought the game a couple of weeks ago, but still haven’t done much with it.  Since I don’t have time for grand, sweeping construction/carving projects, I settled for wandering around to see if I could find a bit of scenery to call home.  Imposing at a distance, the impossible peak I’ve come to call Anvilania was my first and only real contender for my point of residence.

 

Moonset on Anvilania

 

Of course, it wasn’t just something I could mosey over to and scale.  Conveniently, there is a cresting wave of a mountain nearby, so I planned to create a bridge across to my new home.  Of course, I had to find a way up the mountain first.  I carved a meandering path up the back face of the peak, only to find a chicken had beat me to the top.  It mocked me.  I briefly considered kicking it off the cliff, but I had better things to do at the moment.  Perhaps, if luck was with me, it would wander off into the clouds and fall on its own.  (Anvilania’s top surface is above the clouds, but the top of the chute here was within the clouds.)

 

Cliff Climbing

 

 

Cliff Chicken

 

I’ve tinkered a bit with the free version of Minecraft, and there found that I could build a bridge out into space thanks to the conveniently selective laws of physics.  I could just sort of leeeean over the edge of oblivion and place a block, and with enough of this vertigo-inducing cartoon-physics construction, I could have my very own bridge that would have made Frank Lloyd Wright dizzy.

 

Span1

 

 

Basic Lit Bridge

 

A couple of spans later and I had access to Anvilania.  I lit the way with torches and built small walls for the bridge, and took stock of my new home in the sky.  Except… it almost really felt more like a shrine.  It was livestock-free, and fairly flat on top.  There was a single tree in the center of the peak, and a trio of geographical features I’ve found to be great meditation points.  There’s the Diving Board, where I can get clear screenshots of a large swath of neighboring terrain:

 

Diving Board

 

The Zen Shelf, a natural porch that lets me view the other half of the world , dangle my legs off the abyss and dream of dropping anvils on the barbarians below (Anvil Zen, anyway):

 

Zen Shelf

 

And finally, the Pouting Porch, a curious little spot on the island where the only way to safety is back the way you came (without building a new skyrail, anyway).  It’s that little corner under the crosshairs, under the torch.  It’s a nice place to find perspective, since so many deadly accidents in Minecraft seem to be self-inflicted.  This is especially true when playing on Peaceful mode like I am.  No monsters, but you can still drown, burn or fall to your death.  Anyway, this will likely be where I start to carve my home into the interior of Anvilania.  Not much of a front porch, but it should be easy to take care of door to door salesmen.

 

Pouting Porch

 

Speaking of dying, though, I just had to test out my high diving skills, since it turned out that there was a nice little pond below Anvilania.

…yeah, water needs to be at least two blocks deep to save divers from bodily injury.  Once I found my way back to Anvilania from the spawn point, that was my first project; carving out the pool to make it deeper.  After that, I carved a locker room out of the wall nearby (which is really just storage, but since it almost looks like a rec center locker room, I figured it was for pool visitors) and cleaned out some of the nearby sand.  This, so I could make glass, of course.

 

Locker Room

 

In the meantime, the chicken had found me again, and brought reinforcements.  By the time I had enough sand for the glass I wanted, there were three chickens, a cow, a sheep, and two pigs lounging in the pool.  I considered keeping them there (since clearing out the pool area had left it impossible to escape), but eventually built a ramp out.  I want clean water for my visitors.  (The nearby waterfall comes in on the left and flushes water out on the right.)

 

Critter Pool

 

I decided I wanted a new path up the mountain to Anvilania, so I set about scouting a path.  My first path got too steep too soon, so I abandoned it.  I considered carving a spiral tunnel up through the mountain near the waterfall, but decided that would take too long and would be pretty boring.  I tried another path up the mountain, and with minimal carving and building, managed to make a nice sweeping path back up to my skypath.

 

Path Night

 

Then I destroyed the skypath and remade it in glass.

 

Glass Bridge

 

It’s much easier now to see where you can dive from, and now that the water is deep enough, it’s possible to actually enjoy the trip.

 

Diving Corner, with the pool WAY down there

 

With that, I jumped once more into the pool, then visited the locker room and emptied my pockets.  I wandered off to see what that other big mountain was just across the bay.  The swim was refreshing, but it’s alarming how quickly I sink if I let myself.  Most disturbing, though… the chicken beat me to the other side.

 

Foreign Chicken

 

It was guarding a grave of some sort.  (Yes, it came like that out of the random terrain generator.  Halloweeny.)

 

Gravesite

 

Waterfalls notwithstanding, I’m not sure I like this place.

Looking back in the evening after a nice fried chicken dinner, it’s nice to see my path on the mountain and the torches I lit for the Anvilania shrine.

 

Path Dusk

 

I’ll be going back in the morning.  I suspect there’s ore to be mined under the mountain.  There shouldn’t be any chickens there.  Who knows what I might find?

…and that makes all the difference.  Exploring and experimenting make me happy.

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I think I’m doing this blogging thing all wrong.  I like to think I’m writing about game design here, with a side order of pith, pomp and pique.

According to the statistics, though, one of my articles is a clear favorite (as in, easily twice as many hits per unit of time compared to anything else I’ve written):

Avatar Art

…ah.

Yeah, the James Cameron halo effect is stronger than anything of substance I have to offer.  Maybe I should review Inception?  (tl;dr version:  Ooh, nifty!  Cool GFX.  Freaky wife.  Great heist flavor.  Choose Your Own Ending.)

Kinda puts what I do here in perspective, just in case I start thinking I’m all that and a bag of chips (Boulder Canyon Rice and Bean Chipotle Cheddar chips, of course… man, those are good).  So Gordon?  At least this little blog has pretty much no effect on the industry.

This actually doesn’t bother me, since I’m not blogging to change the world, but it really did strike me as odd that the Avatar article would be the one with the most total hits.  (It’s even topping older ones that have been around for two years or more.)  In fact, sometimes it’s a game I play; try to top my daily hits on that article with one of my more traditional articles.  So far, I’m not doing so well.

Oh, and while we’re at it, here’s my WoW Armory profile (conveniently not updated since the 10th).  Feel free to tell me I’m doing that wrong, too.  I promise to keep on doing whatever I feel like anyway.

FCC Disclosure:  I am in no way, shape or form in any sort of financial standing that would benefit in any way whatsoever from people going out and buying every single bag of those marvelous chips.  I would, however, be saddened if there were none left for me.

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Perpetuum looks like a fusion of BattleTech and EVE.  “EVE OnLand“, perhaps.  I’m not sure if that’s a fair assessment, so I’m going to go tinker for a little while with their open beta (which starts today!), assuming they let me.  I’m looking forward to it, anyway; I’ve wanted to play a good Mech-flavored MMO for a while now.  (It turns out that Project of Planets wasn’t terribly impressive, but then, it was still under construction when I last checked in.  Maybe it rocks now.)

Now that I’ve got WoW out of my system (thanks, BBB!  Screenshots thisaway…), it’s time to see what I can do with some stompy Mechs.  It’s a subscription game, so I may never have a better chance to see what it’s like.

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Big Bear Heart

Raid From The Heart

See you tomorrow.  I’ll be there as a Tauren Druid, Tishtoshtesh.

‘Tis for a good cause, with some good people.

Oh, and I made the logo, used in the shop (and below), in which all profits go to the American Heart Association.

Tally ho!

Raid From The Heart 2010

(Yes, I had great plans for some really stellar, awesome desktops, but I’m running out of time to do all the things I need to.  Alas.)

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…in Dalaran, do Blizzard devs notice?

Shintar’s The Day That Tree Form Died

Larisa’s Yet Another Angry Post From A Disappointed Ex-Tree

Ardol’s It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye: Tree of Life and a nice set of screenshots as a Photo Tribute

I’ll just sound another voice, saddened for the loss.  I do play in cat/bear form most often (if I’m playing WoW at all, anyway), but this always struck me as an odd choice by Blizzard.  The new forms are a bit strange, too, though they do feel more like the traditional Ancients that the Night Elves revere so much, albeit with a slightly… bovine facial structure.  Think “buffaloak“, perhaps.

Of course, you’re not supposed to listen to the players, so no sweat, Blizzard.  (My snark aside, that’s a good article from Scrusi… and it looks like Blizzard is throwing sad Druids an olive branch anyway, see Ghostcrawler’s post in this thread.)

One more voice:  Lara’s Fare Thee Well

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I’ve never really liked item sets in these silly RPGs and their cousins, MMOs.

From Diablo to Titan Quest to Torchlight to World of Warcraft, there always seems to be a subset of items that function as a set, where equipping more than one of the set gives some sort of bonus.  That’s fine design, since it gives gear a little more meaning and fun, rooted in that sweet, sweet loot pinata jackpot endorphin rush.  The item sets themselves don’t bother me, actually, it’s just that actually putting together a set based on random (and usually very rare) loot drops is an exercise in futility.

Combine the leveling mechanism (gain experience points from killing stuff and quests, level up, be stronger and more specialer, ad infinitum) with the rarity of actually acquiring those set items, and the fact that you have to kill a lot of pinatas to get said gear and well… more often than not, the activity of grinding to try to acquire those set pieces makes them obsolete by the time you get all of them because you’ve leveled up a few times (or more) trying to get them.

I do call that bad design, at least if those sets are meant to ever be completed when they might be relevant to the bulk of gameplay.  (And if they are not meant to be so completed, why have them at all?)  Why offer the Perseus Hunter set for the dashing midlevel Hunter if they have almost no chance whatsoever of assembling the set before they start shopping for the Artemis Set?  The storytelling often included in item sets is fractured beyond usability, and the function of the gear gets lost to the winds.

Yes, yes, there’s a market for gear sets for “twinks” in WoW (sometimes, anyway, and mostly just for stuff that doesn’t Bind on Pickup), and gear sets are great for role players, especially with appearance tabs (if you’re lucky enough to have them, like LOTRO).  Some “endgame” gear sets are good, too, since you’re not leveling up any more, and character progression is largely based on gear.  Item sets aren’t wholly useless by any means, they are just… silly.

At the level cap, you can at least “sidegrade” to gear set pieces if they wind up being better as a set than whatever other random stuff you’ve collected.  That’s solid design to keep people playing when the leveling system has fallen into uselessness.  Bonus points if those sets look sweet together.  Guild Wars largely gets this right, since the level cap (and gear effectiveness cap!) is reached pretty easily, and at that point, chasing item sets makes more sense.

And yet, item sets simply aren’t all that special in the leveling content, since the rarity of special items for the set runs contrary to the core leveling mechanic of the game.  Some players will collect the sets anyway, knowing full well that they will be largely useless once collected, but many will just use a set item for as long as it’s useful on its own, since the set bonuses are extremely unlikely to ever come into play at all.  It’s just another piece of random loot at that point.

That’s just… silly.

Of course, I do think that games need a bit of silly here and there to break up all the Serious Gaming Business, but game elements that are internally conflicted like this just set off my “wait, what’s the point?” alarms.  It’s that clash and tension between leveling and collecting stuff for a narrow level band that bugs me.

So… how to do it better?  Would item set pieces work better if they were extremely common rather than rare and special?  Maybe give a real chance for the set to be collected in time for it to be useful?  Maybe shift item sets from random loot drops to purchasable items?  Enhance the purchasable set with upgrades from loot drops, to catch the best of both worlds?  Maybe work like the “satchel loot” from WoW’s Dungeon Finder (guaranteed high quality gear for running dungeons… not really a “set”, but definitely themed and visually unified)?  As in, you’re guaranteed a set item if you do certain tasks, and set items are paced properly to be useful for when you get them and a bit beyond?

What else could we do as designers?

And yes, I know that these sets are one more layer of addiction for the completionist and collection (pack rat) mentalities of players, but since there’s never really much of a payoff (considering pacing and obsoletion of item sets once fully collected), I’d argue that it’s not a very effective layer of addiction.  (Of course, maybe that’s a good thing…)

It’s just that the randomness of the loot mechanic and the rarity of item sets, layered on top of the leveling system, well… it’s silly.

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Three Seasons

Some people take pictures of rainbows, some take pictures of people.  I take pictures of trees.

I really love this Autumnal time of year.  Some of my best photographs are in Fall or Winter.

Julian asked about the new header picture I’m using up there.  It’s a photograph I took last year over on the grounds of my alma mater, Brigham Young University.  The one beneath that is from the same park, a year before that, and the last one is a photo I took around the same time of a single tree that seemed to cover a nice full range of colors.

I really love capturing photos like this that seem to show trees in Spring, Summer and Fall all at once.  Nature looks pretty incredible sometimes.  (The photos don’t do it justice, really.)

 

Three Season Trees

 

 

BYU Park

 

 

Three Season Tree

 

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I’ve been designing some miniatures I can get the Shapeways guys to print out eventually, ultimately for use in a pair of games I’m working on.  One is a six player (or three or two) elemental sort of chess, so I just need models, but the other is sort of a fantasy/BattleTech mashup, a tabletop tactical miniatures game almost in the vein of WarMachine.

I’m running into a design question, though that I’d like some input on.  I’m trying to find a good way to keep track of information for the combat units.  For those of you with experience with or interest in mini games like this, how do you like to keep track of unit status?  This might include things like hit points, status afflictions (morale, poisons, buff and debuffs, auras, that sort of thing), weapon loadout, special moves, or any of a number of other variables.

I’ve seen games like HeroClix and the World of Warcraft minis game try to encode at least some of this data on a rotating base under the figure.  This has always seemed like a gimmick to me, but it does reduce the number of things you have to keep track of on paper off the combat arena.  The models seem a bit flimsier for the mechanical base, though, so it’s definitely a tradeoff in terms of usability.  They also seem a bit more… “gamey” than the games that just use minis on bases that might have a more simulationist feel.

Other games like WarMachine and BattleTech offload the bookkeeping to papers.  This isn’t as easy to tell the status of things at a glance, but it does allow for much more detailed information and thus, potentially more game design elements and clearer design.

Warhammer does a little of both, in a way, letting unit count in a block of infantry be a visible tally of a combat group’s strength, but it also has a lot of data offloaded onto paper, especially for hero units and special gear or magical effects.

One of the strengths of the Magic: The Gathering card game is that they have tried to reduce the bookkeeping and memory issues over the years.  Once upon a time you might have to keep track of multiple different upkeeps, special effects and what different counters represented (is that a +0/+2, +1/+1 or +2/+0 counter?).  These days, they have tried to distill these issues and have the “board state” give as much information as possible.  It’s nice to have a lot of data out there in the gamespace rather than offloaded to paper, but some things just don’t code well in a small amount of space.  Reducing the number of things players have to remember also helps speed up the game and make it easier to learn, as well as easier to play.

My question then is about that data encoded in the figure bases, whether it’s HP, action arcs, facing, whatever.  Is that method actually helpful in real gameplay?  (This includes noting that it’s more of a hassle if you’re always picking up the models and twiddling with their bases, and on a non-grid gamespace, that’s kind of annoying.)  Is it better to have all bookkeeping off-model?

Which do you prefer playing with and why?  I have my opinions, but I also have relatively little experience with miniature tactical gaming.  I’d like to get a bit more information if possible.  Tangentially, how much bookkeeping is too much?

Thank you in advance!

(Perhaps this could be generously noted as a bit of game UI design.  Playability is a big component of whether a game sticks or not.)

Oh, and bonus question while we’re talking mini design.  Painted or nonpainted?  Shapeways can print in full color now, and it’s even cheaper than nonpainted models.  Painted models are more brittle, though, and don’t have as much detail, so again, it’s all about the tradeoffs.

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