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Posts Tagged ‘mtg’

Scope is a tricky thing in game design.

When I design a game, I want it long and deep enough to be interesting, but not so long and deep that it tires players.  I want it accessible, but not infantile.  I want it to be easy to learn and fun to play on a superficial level and/or by inexperienced players, but have enough complexity and intricacy that mastering it takes effort and feels rewarding.  I want enough features to justify making the game in the first place, rather than a tech demo.  I want to explore the implications of design choices without making busywork for the players.  There is a sweet spot to hit where I have enough in the game to satisfy those admittedly vague goals, and doing too little or too much design detracts from the play experience.

Might I recommend a few references on the subject?

“Good design is as little design as possible.”

I cannot recommend Mr. Rosewater’s articles enough.  His archive is a treasure trove of game design considerations.  Yes, he writes about designing a card game, but as he asserts in the Top Ten Principles articles, Good Design is Good Design, and some principles are universal across mediums.  I agree, and it’s nice to see someone articulate it as well as Mr. Rosewater does, and as well as Mr. Rams does.

This is why, here at my workplace in a small game dev studio, we occasionally have game nights, where we play board or card games.  Understanding why offline games work (with a side order of game theory, explicit or not) is valuable information when we get around to designing our video games.  We have to understand the tools of our trade, and how design works.

One of the hardest things to learn is restraint.  If I may, since art is the medium I’m most familiar with, a few thoughts on this notion as it’s found in the art world:

Art design ranges from minimalist to overwrought hyperdetail.  Brushwork might be exceedingly sparse in some of these lovely Chinese bamboo paintings…

…which contrasts starkly with the laborious process that produced something like this.

…which is itself dwarfed by some of the more elaborate hyperrealist paintings.

(Never mind that once you get to that level, we’re talking about a bizarre devotion to the craft of “doing it because I can” instead of just taking a photograph.  It’s sort of like the artist equivalent of a No Sphere Grid Final Fantasy X game, or climbing Mount Everest carrying a grumpy rabid wombat in your pocket.)

Each can work nicely as a piece of Art, but they tend to evoke different responses.  Some of that is strongly based in how much of the experience is left to the consumer, something that game designers should be intimately familiar with, seeing as how our medium is interactive by nature.  (Which doesn’t invalidate it as an art medium, by the way.)

There comes a point in art where enough really is enough.  One more brushstroke, one more visual element, and the composition changes, especially when working in sparse formats like the bamboo paintings.  Sometimes that change is for the better, taking the piece in new directions, but many times, going just a wee bit too far makes the piece weaker.  Sometimes it can even totally break the mood and aim of the piece.  I’ve tossed away many of my sketches that I overworked.

This is part of why I enjoy sketching with ballpoint pens, and why I encourage other artists to do so as well.  When you have to account for every move you make, as there is no erasing, you learn to carefully gauge what you do, and either make the right choice the first time, or learn to roll with mistakes and incorporate them into your work.  These are valuable tools in an artist’s toolbox.

You could also work digitally, and use the almighty Undo command and History panel, and work with layers, which give you incredible control over your artworks if used properly.  Many artists wind up working both digitally and traditionally, since both offer distinct advantages.  I often sketch in pen, then scan it into the computer for the coloring with Painter or Photoshop.

Back to games, then, I’ve often seen Portal lauded as being a great game, even as it’s noted as being a short game.  It’s just long enough to give players the chance to experiment with the implications of Portal mechanics and the various puzzle elements, and it’s not padded out with excessive repetition for the sake of making the game seem somehow meatier via time sinks (which are really just bloated fat, not real gaming meat).  It hits a sweet spot of playability and proper exploration of game mechanics.  It’s flat out, concentrated fun, even though it’s not a mega-epic sixty hour post-apocalyptic snark opera.

On the other hand, we have Final Fantasy XIII, known for its somewhat extensive tutorial.  To be fair, they are different games with different ends, but the time spent differs by an order of magnitude.  A significant difference like that needs to be something done by design and for a good reason, not just to pad out playtime.  Whether FFXIII succeeds in that regard is arguable, but the argument is more vociferous than a similar argument about Portal’s scope and focus.

Portal tends to leave players itching for more, while FFXIII has some players crying to just get on with the game!  MMOs can be even worse.

Oh, and scope might be one reason why we don’t have a Magic the Gathering MMO, while we’re talking MTG, MMOs and game design.  The game is intricately and beautifully designed as it is, and trying to shoehorn that into an MMO makes for uncomfortable compromises.  It’s possible to bend the MTG themes, lore and other assorted IP into an MMO, perhaps, and such crossgenre game design is possible… but doing so would mean effectively building a totally different game from the ground up, just with an existing IP.  That doesn’t always work out.  It means a different scope, a different focus, and ultimately, a different feel because it really is a different game.  That can alienate fans of the existing lore, even as the existing lore already limits the audience if there are strong feelings about it among gamers or nongamers the product is trying to entice.

It might also be worth noting that stories are easier to tell when the storytelling format is a bit more focused than a series of grinds with cutscenes in between.  At least, if story is important.  It’s also worth noting that stories can have a fair amount of cruft and bloat in them as well, and one of the hardest parts of learning to write well is learning when to shut up, similar to how the best skill conversationalists learn is how to listen.

It’s a lesson I’m still learning, obviously, in writing and game design… but it’s one worth learning.

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The Play This Thing article on Mythoria questions the value of games, specifically a video game that would work well as a physical game.

The notion of making money by selling real, tangible stuff is one that I’ve toyed with, and it’s interesting to see it noted elsewhere.  I still need to finish Alpha Hex‘s video game iteration, but I’ve long had ideas for making it a physical card game as well.  I printed up some cards to playtest it during design, and it proved to be very helpful… and it plays fairly well in tangible form.  I’d love to use the Game Crafter to sell a base Alpha Hex set and expansions if occasion permits, but leave the digital version free and open source (if they ever support hexagonal cards, I’ll jump on it).  I’ve even made card designs for both formats, and written some story and lore with an eye to making physical card-specific art, not unlike that MTG thing.  It might even be a “wheel within a wheel” for some other game designs I have in mind.

To me, having a physical game, ready to play if the digital world goes offline, is a valuable thing that I’m willing to pay for.  There’s a retro appeal to buying stuff with my money, instead of… digital, ephemeral… nonstuff.  (Especially when draconian DRM means the providers can deny me the privilege of playing at a whim.)

My wife and I have collected many board and card games, and many times, they are more fun to play than popping in another video game.  We don’t need electricity or a connection to the internet, just some light, a level surface and somewhere dry to play.  There are no patches, no permissions, no waiting for the Dungeon Finder to work its magic. That freedom can be good for the soul, even if it’s just a periodic thing, another tool in the toolbox of the larger world of “gaming”.

I’ve designed three board games and two card games in the last year or so, and I’d love to get them out there and make a bit of money from them.  There’s even a place for making one of my board games into a nice hardwood coffee table offering… even if it’s just something I do for Christmas gifts.  (Though it would be great if they were commercially viable.)

These video game things can be good fun, to be sure, but sometimes, it really is great to hold game cards in your hands, to move pieces on a board, and to play with people face to face, rather than through anonymous filters, monitors and cables.  It can even be instructive when trying to design games for the digital realm.  Offline games have been designed and played for thousands of years; there’s a lot of good data there to sift through with an eye to why games work.

Paper Dragon Games has a tangential take on things; their headline offering, Constellation, is a game that is designed to have a “board game” feel, but is entirely digital.  We can certainly automate setup and some mechanics digitally, making some game mechanics easier.  The digital version of Alpha Hex benefits from automated ownership tracking and attack resolution, for instance, and the XBox Live version of Settlers of Catan is far easier to set up than the board game.

It can be very useful to make a game digital… and it can be useful to go the other way, too.  It’s harder to pirate a card game, for one.  Sure, photocopiers work, and I’ve even offered a PDF version of Alpha Hex, but if the cards offered for sale are of sufficient quality and the game is good, there will still be a market for the “real thing”.  I probably won’t ever make a living purely on card game sales, but it’s worth offering the option to anyone interested in the game.

There is certainly room in the “game tent” for both digital and physical games, sometimes even different iterations of the same game, as with MTG.  When I look at monetizing my game design hobby, though, I can’t help but think that it might be a good outlet for me to take some of my game designs that could work in either format (or both!) and offer a physical version.  It’s one more way to break up the demand curve and reach out to different people.

Parallel product lines can also help build a brand, which can be useful for indies.  We even see things like the merchandising efforts of the Blizzard WoW team, what with the card game and the miniatures game.  They didn’t pan out to be as popular as their parent game, but they are solid offerings, and likely at least partially profitable for Blizzard.

Sometimes, it pays to make the game real.

…even if it’s only because you get to use house rules…

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Game balance is a tricky thing.  Psychochild has a good article up about it over here:

Balanced but not Equal

I’ve also been pondering the nature of Final Fantasy games and game balance.  In nearly every FF game, players have the option of outleveling the game’s difficulty, effectively toning down the challenge by investing time in lesser challenges.  (That’s also what WoW winds up doing as well, at least until the “endgame” where the core play changes anyway.)  Thankfully, the games are usually fun enough to make that sort of “grind” enjoyable, and it’s often incentivized with side quests.  Of course, this blows the designer’s carefully crafted pacing and balance out of the airlock, but one of the cardinal lessons that good designers learn is that the player’s experience (including the ability to do crazy things the designer didn’t intend) is paramount, not the designer’s ego.  Games should be about letting players play, not trying to force them into the designer’s vision.

In FFTA2, like its predecessor, there are some midgame/lategame abilities that can be learned that make for “broken” gameplay.  The prototypical example is the “Red Mage/Summoner with Doublecast and Blood Price and Juggler with Critical:Quicken and elemental absorption gear”.  It’s a rather “degenerate” combo that allows the player to use two units to take infinite turns and bounce around the map, blasting foes with elemental summons (powerful large area magic).  There are those who use that as an example that FFTA2 is “broken”.  A quick YouTube search will produce more than a few results to that effect.

I think it’s brilliant.

As Mark Rosewater of MTG fame might say, I’m a Johnny.  I love finding those sort of absurdly overpowered combos in a game, using game mechanics in synergistic and explosive ways.  It’s a bit of a metagame puzzle for me, plotting out the most interesting and effective way to completely dominate the game, or maybe just do something interesting that the good little hamsters on the designer’s wheel might not have thought of.

And who doesn’t like that at some level, anyway?  Games are many things, but close to the gamer’s heart is the desire for a power fantasy; the ability to completely bend the game to our whim and demonstrate power unheard of in our petty little “real” lives.  If we’re just actors in the designer’s little “movie”, especially if we don’t know our part, we’re not going to really enjoy playing the game.  We might enjoy the satisfaction of finally figuring things out and reading the designer’s mind, but that’s an entirely different psychological fix.

FF games allow for that sort of customized playing experience, especially in the Tactics games with their expansive stable of Jobs and abilities.  I love that they offer that sort of choice.  If I want to play the game “the purist way”, I can just suck it up like a man and beat my head against the wall until I develop a sufficiently thick cranium and neck muscles to plow my way through the challenge.  If I don’t want to deal with repeated failure and stupid “do it again, stupid” gameplay (thanks for the phrase, Shamus!), I can just go out and level up a few times and come back with more beefy avatars.

Of course, the trick is to balance things sufficiently that such game breakers don’t show up too early, and to give challenges to even the elite (hello, Ruby/Emerald Weapon, meet my Knights of the Round via WSummon).

To be fair, the FF lineage does have a penchant for “one shot” gear or items that can only be found if you don’t open a treasure chest when you can in the first three hours of the game and come back to it just before the final boss, or some other obscure set of procedures.  I’m not a fan of that sort of option, since it’s only available to those with a FAQ or replay OCD.  I’m most interested in the “toolbox” sort of design that makes all of the pieces available to players, and their skill or devotion at putting together the puzzle unlocks interesting gameplay, above and beyond what the “main story” requires for completion.

Bottom line, though, I do think that FF games strike a decent balance between allowing nearly anyone to see their lovingly-crafted stories (the quality of which can be debated, of course, but here I’m talking about gameplay access) and still offer challenge to players of all levels.  It does make for some “broken” combos, and some nonsense “optional bosses” that could have eaten the Big Bad for a snack, but when it boils down to gameplay, it’s about letting the player make choices in how they approach the game.  Those who want a challenge can try a FFX “no sphere grid” game (no upgrading the characters as they level up), and those who just want to see if Yuna and Tidus finally get over their angst  can just mosey on through the game, creating superheroes that can destroy the final boss with a glare.  That flexibility is a good thing.

(And, as should be noted, this does change between single player games and MMOs, where combos need to be kept reined in a lot more, given PvP and the inevitable whining pity parties.  Still, giving players different ways to do things and have fun playing is a good thing.)

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