Games, Design & Game Design

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Game Chef Review: Rage, Rage

In Commentary, Game Chef, Links, My Thoughts On, Roleplaying Games on April 23, 2012 at 7:12 pm

I participated in this year’s “Last Chance” Game Chef game design competition. Part of the deal is providing peer review to other people’s submissions. This is the third of a series of such reviews. Also, you can download my entry by clicking here (PDF): This Match Is Scheduled For One Fall.

Rage, Rage by David Miessler-Kubanek (download PDF)

Rage, Rage is a rules-light, narrative-focused game that asks the players to set up the End (the world, someones life, a civilization, etc), and then play out the reactions of a cast of core characters who have an interest in that End. The game gives three broad category of “response” to the End – accepting it, denying it, or bending it to your will.

The group comes up with the specific End, and then a “End Pathway,” a literal object (based on the examples given) that represents the thematic impact of that End. I appreciate the extensive examples given of each, enough to be used as randomized tables to get started quickly. Characters are sketched out broadly, having 2 numbers (Madness and Courage), and the answers to a list of questions – what is the character willing to risk, who are they willing to sacrifice, and how will they prevent the “dying of the light”? These questions are very evocative and give some immediate hook into a characters mindset, for me at least.

Characters also have a Hope and Fear related to the Lantern, which is kind of an all-encompassing metaphor for both the End and the End Pathway. Essentially, a character has a related Hope and Fear, only one of which is active at a time, and some of the mechanics involve switching the focus of the character from one to the other. Each character also has a Hope and a Fear related to the backgrounds of one of the other characters, putting them into an initial relationship map with each other.

Gameplay, as far as I can tell, consists of using the cues generated during character creation to push towards some kind of dealing with the oncoming End – again, either accepting it, denying it, or bending it to your will. The game uses the word “respond” almost exclusively when talking about what characters do, which struck me as an odd choice. This kind of game, with a light atmospheric framework and a lot of narrative overhead, tends to work best when built around pro-active characters with definite goals, in my experience. This may just very well just be my personal response to the phrasing, but it stood out to me as not serving the text well.

I admit, I had difficulty parsing this game text. Part of it is that some of the mechanics share names but do different things, part of it is the use of the Lantern metaphor as an organizing principle in a couple of different and overlapping ways, and part of it is that I’m not sure if Daniel had a clear idea of what play would actually look like. A GM is mentioned a couple of times, but there is no note of what their responsibilities are, making me question why there’s a GM at all? I don’t see any reason why the players can’t all have a character and simply…do whatever you need to do to provide adversity for each other. The game calls itself cooperative, but characters seem to be pointed at each other (with their Fear connections), and there are mechanics for killing each other and dying.

I like a lot of the pieces of this game, particularly the relationship between Madness and  Courage. The relationship of these two numbers, looked at amongst all of the characters, is what determines “what happens” at the end of the game, a really nice twist to a My Life With Master-like “your numbers determine your fate” approach. I like that the players get to contribute to each others characters (by writing down each other Fears, and giving each other Signs of the End). I really like the two sample game setups provided, which really helped me understand how characters and their relationships are supposed to look.

I personally would have trouble playing this game as written, right now, due mainly to my vagueness about what the GM is supposed to do, and what kind of approach the players should have to their characters. I don’t see any major procedural holes (there aren’t many procedures to consider!). I would need to have a stronger idea of Daniel’s vision for actual play, either directly expressed in the text or in the form of illustrative examples, to have a less analytical response to this text. I really appreciate the levels of metaphor and the overall aim of the game! There is a bit of poetry here that is very appealing to me. It’s just obscuring the prose, as it were, a little too much.

Pause, Stop, Pause

In Commentary, Design Practice, Self-Reflection on November 6, 2011 at 10:04 am

So it sure has been a little busy around here since August.

In real life, my fabrication gig has proved to be much busier than it was originally envisioned – which is good, because it’s keeping me employed, but it sure was an adjustment getting back into real making after two years off. Also, in a big case of “when it rains, it pours” I had accepted a couple of freelance projects just before starting that job, which meant from mid-July through the beginning of October I was just working all the time. An exhausting adjustment. Real work is different from school work, I remember that now!

Fortunately, October saw things slow down a little on the work front, but it was bookended by travel (a lovely short vacation at the beginning, and a rad friend’s wedding at the end), and I really wanted nothing to do with anything that wasn’t right in front of my face.

And then it was November, oh snap!

Work seems to be settling into a more predictable pattern, for now, and I’m actually doing some low-key personal designing (a wine rack for my kitchen, and maybe some other things), which is refreshing. I’m also noodling about (re: completely overhauling) a big game project that I’ve been working on off and on since before I went to school.

The main thing for me, now, is trying to rediscover the fun in what I like to do. Something about going through the grad school process really seemed to drain the joy out of me – I would be willing to chalk it up to my personal wierdness, but I’ve had this conversation with most of my classmates and everyone seems to have experienced the same thing. I don’t know why this is so, but it kinda really sucks. Something about the pressure of the critical environment combined with the lack of confidence in our own abilities? I dunno.

I’m hoping that just making some small, simple, unambitious things will help me find my way back to the fun. We shall see.

Kickstarting Things

In Commentary, Links on August 20, 2011 at 1:22 pm

Now that I’m a Kickstarter myself, I’ve been checking out, and pledging to, other Kickstarter projects. That’s how they getcha.

So, here’s some projects that I would like to bring to your attention:

Bears – Yes, it’s my friends band. But, as luck would have it, they’re really good, and I would very much like for them to be able to release a new album! You can check the tunes out at their website, or on Spotify, if you have it. Anyway, consider pitching in a couple bucks for an indie pop band to keep on doing their thing.

The Circus and the Cyclone – I came across this while browsing Kickstarter, and it hits me right in the sweet spot – circus, beautiful illustration, historical narrative, love stories, art prints, and so on. I want it to exist! Check it out!

DIYLILCNC – Attention maker-nerds! This project is something that a couple of folks who used to work in my department at SAIC have been working on forever, and I’m excited that it’s making progressive steps onwards. Basically, they’ve developed a set of opensource plans that enables an individual to build a desktop-sized CNC machine capable of fabricating 3D models for about $700 in material costs. Which is really amazing. I know there’s a number of these kinds of efforts out there, but I have a personal connection to these guys and I think they’re rad, so check it if yer interested in DIY making!

Animal Crime – Ben Lehman has a microgame up, and while it’s already surpassed the funding goal, I want to give a shout-out cuz I heart micro-publishing. It’s about a Marmot Detective, which is about all I know, but then again, what more do you need to know? More money means more art, so it’s not like pledging will hurt any, if you’re interested!

Designing Without Knowledge

In Commentary, Game Design, Self-Reflection on July 7, 2011 at 11:06 am

I tweeted something yesterday that seemed to hit a chord.

How did I end up designing all these creepy horror games? I don’t even really like horror stuff. #contradictionsopencreativity

Some responses:

@mforbeck Been in that situation often myself.
@lumpleygames Hey wait, is that how come I can’t seem to design a straight-up horror game?
@balehmanWow, me too. I’m not a fan, but I design like all horror all the time
@Epidiah Back in school, I’d always write my essays from a POV I disagreed with because it was so much easier.
@joshroby My best work and best ideas come from when I’m working with material I don’t have massive (overpowering?) respect for.
@kevinallenjr yeah I prefer playing trad adventure/fighty games, how did I end up neck deep in this hippie crap
@simoncarryer I think sometimes you design a game to fix the problems with the genre.

Some thoughts after the jump.

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New Style Interview

In Commentary, Promo, Roleplaying Games, Self-Reflection on July 4, 2011 at 11:41 am

Scott Dunphy interviewed me for his New Style podcast, which is now available for your listening pleasure.

We mostly talked about Be Ashamed Young Prince and how it compared/contrasted to my other games. I fear that I managed to talk too long about things that aren’t very interesting to anyone but me, and not long enough about useful things, but that’ll be for you to find out!

That conversation also made me realize that I think I’ve officially tipped over into the “old guard” at some point. I mean, I was referencing Game Chef 2005 for heaven’s sake! Which is funny, because I feel like I still have a lot to learn from designers who more active in the early 2000’s, and their games still have a lot to teach us. Almost to the extent that I don’t really have a good handle on the games that have come out in the last couple of years (tho, to be fair, grad school).

Anyhow, I forgot how much I like talking about this stuff to a captive audience, so many thanks to Scott for interviewing me, and I hope it’s an entertaining listen.

Habits For A New Age

In Commentary, My Thoughts On on June 27, 2011 at 12:35 pm

As a combination graduation/birthday gift, I received a very sweet iPad 2. So far I mostly use it as a radio and mobile Twitter platform, though I recently started reading old Sherlock Holmes stories on it as well. In many ways, I have yet to unlock the potential of this device.

However, there is one interesting way in which it’s motivated me to restructure my digital life. Due to a great tip, I got the Flipboard app, which is genius. It takes a cross-section of it’s own curated content, RSS feeds of my choice, and what people in my social networks post or link to, and lays out the content in a easily-navigatable magazine format. It’s great! But, after a few days, I noticed that the sites that I subscribe too that are more prolific (like boing boing, io9, stuff like that) tend to overwhelm all the smaller, more occasional feeds (like my friends blogs).

Thus, I just spent a couple of hours going through my google reader, deleting the high-volume feeds from it (along with legacy feeds that haven’t been updated in over 6 months), and then giving those feeds their own dedicated Flipboard section on my iPad. Hopefully, my “Google Reader” section will now be a more heterogenous selection of interesting things, and then if I want to see whats up on io9, I flip to the “io9” section, etc.

This also means that, except for links that come in through twitter during the day, I’ll mostly be consuming those high-volume sites via Flipboard, and not really on my laptop.

Big deal? Not really, except that it’s an example of how the structure of a well-designed app can drive behavior in a really interesting (and effective) way.

Over A Thousand

In Commentary, Promo, Publishing on June 22, 2011 at 10:37 am


Yesterday, the Kickstarter campaign for Witness the Murder of your Father and Be Ashamed, Young Prince broke $1,000. The target was $275. As of now, this means:

  • It’s made 380% of the target funds
  • I’ve been commissioned by Graham Walmsley to write a shortform game, which I’m very excited about
  • I’ve been able to commission additional art from Sarah for the interior of the publication, which is just making it look better and better
  • I’m able to easily cover all of the shipping costs for all the backers, as well as manufacturing costs for the backers-only award sets and prints
  • There will be money left over for me to put towards other projects (possibly including attending conventions that I’d already written off)
  • I have over 50 people who I cannot say enough good things about

Assuming there isn’t a major wave of backers canceling their contributions, this is simply put one of the single most (financially) successful publishing efforts I’ve made. There are 6 days to go, for anyone who wants to get the Kickstarter-only version of the game, (essentially) order it without paying shipping, or go for the couple final backer-only rewards.

One thing for sure, this idea of audience-funded micro-publishing sure seems to have some legs!

It does still have to run its course, but if anyone has any questions about the Kickstarter process, or would like to comment about why they decided to back the project (or any other Kickstarter project, really) I think that would be an interesting conversation.

Many thanks for all the incredible support!

Pre-Final-Final Critique

In Commentary, Design Process, My Thoughts On, Self-Reflection, Thesis Work on May 6, 2011 at 11:07 am

Yesterday I had my Critique Week critique. Crit week, as we call it, is a pretty interesting feature of how SAIC works. Basically, the second-to-last week of each semester is given over to individual 45-minute critiques of each graduate students work by a panel of faculty and visiting artists. Classes are suspended and each student is assigned a day and time to present their work. In the fall you present to a panel of faculty drawn from the department you practice in, and in the spring it’s an interdepartmental panel. Mine, as it turned out, was moderated by a Printing faculty member, and included Film/Video/New Media, Painting, Sculpture and one Architecture instructor (who I had had in the fall for our CTA group studio project).

It went surprisingly well! The fear with these things is not just that it could go poorly, as in the panel doesn’t like or understand the work (that’s not really a big deal), but that it won’t be helpful in furthering the work. I worked pretty hard to get two games to a fully prototyped stage (pics forthcoming), and it really helped, even though we didn’t get into deign details. Having physical things to evaluate makes it so much easier to communicate the idea, every time. The tone of the panel was generally positive and complimentary, with specific questions about how to make the work more effective in really communicating food issues, and some solid suggestions for next steps to take. So it went well, and it was helpful – first time!

Some takeaway points about these critiques (gleaned from my experience and talking to my classmates):

  • Something is better than nothing. Having a prototype or model, even if it’s rough, will provoke more useful discussion than sketches and words, especially in these interdisciplinary panels.
  • They want to help. It’s easy to think of critiques as adversarial, but the faculty seem to genuinely look forward to critique week, and they are interested in what you are doing. Take advantage of their expertise.
  • Don’t talk too much. The panel only sees what you show them and knows what you tell them. They don’t need to know, and probably don’t want to know, the tortured journey from first idea to final product.
  • Take notes. I set up my flip to record the panel (haven’t watched it yet!) and took notes during. Some people get a friend to take notes for them. In any case, you won’t remember everything, get some kind of permanent record.
  • Have specific questions. When the general discussion dies down, it helps to have a list of a couple specific things you want to get out of it, like “do you have any suggestions for how to effectively showcase this feature in the exhibition” or “what kind of packaging would you expect this to come in.” Anything, really, that can guide the conversation towards usefulness and avoid awkward “we’re out of things to talk about” silence.
I have more thoughts on critique week in general, after the jump.

I Stole This Post

In Commentary, Links, My Thoughts On, Self-Reflection on April 2, 2011 at 9:33 am

A seriously inspirational set of advice crossed my digital desk this morning (thanks to @smashingmag). It’s worth reading in it’s entirety (plus he has funny cartoons), but I want to reproduce the list cuz, y’know, it seems like a good idea. With some of my own comments, of course.

How To Steal Things Like An Artist (And 9 Other Things Nobody Told Me) by Austin Kleon

Steal Like An Artist (nothing is original, every idea is a mashup of other ideas, the artist is a collector not a hoarder, garbage in garbage out)

It’s really disheartening when you get halfway through a project and then you find that link to that site that’s showing something that you missed when you were doing your research and you’re all “crap, that’s totally my idea.” But all that means is that you have to do your best to make yours better.

Don’t Wait Until You Know Who You Are To Make Things (making things is how you find yourself, fake it ’til you make it)

If there’s one thing my grad school experience has taught me so far, it’s that my conception of “who I am as a designer” is going to be in flux for a long time. It’s a serious issue, because it’s really difficult to stand behind your work when, in the process of creating that work you discover that it’s not really the kind of work you want to do. Some of my classmates are still absolutely paralyzed by this issue of creative identity. I’ve tried to work around it by thinking of all my work as conditional, but this works better some times than others. Like anything else, it’s a function of just doing more work and learning from it. I hope.

Write The Book You Want To Read (write what you like, all fiction is fan fiction, make what you want to see in the world)

Well, yah. This one seems easy to me. It’s kind of what designers do.

Use Your Hands (your fingers are the original digits, bring your body into your work)

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. I’m still not very good at it (both the skill and making it a part of my daily routine), but hand sketching and physical modeling is so much more productive than working on the computer. Even after less than 2 years I see a qualitative difference in the work produced by people who draw more – hint, it’s better.

Side Projects And Hobbies Are Important (side projects are the ones that blow up, have something that’s just for you)

Last week we went on an office visit to gravitytank and local design luminary Craighton Berman had a similar piece of advice. “Have a side hustle,” he said “that’s the stuff that blows up, and informs your ‘real work’, and they’re both better for it.” I’m inclined to listen, as he does real nice work.

More after the jump.

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Playtesting & The Designer as Expert

In Commentary, Game Design, My Thoughts On on February 18, 2011 at 11:32 am

Ah! A Kerfluffle! Ben Lehman, who I count as a friend and respect mightily as a game designer, has posted a bit of a screed against playtesting over at anyway. I’m not going to go through his argument, you should read his post if you haven’t already (you being “independent amateur game designer” cuz that’s who he’s talking to and for.) I am interested in some issues related to what he brings up, though.

I’m not sure where this first came up (and I may have mashed it up from a number of sources), but there’s a phrase that I keep in mind going through the  design process that goes like this:

Talk to playtesters to find out problems, but ignore their solutions. Talk to other designers to work out solutions, but ignore their problems.

Playtesting is really good at revealing problems but terrible at solving them. If playtesters could solve the problem themselves, they wouldn’t need you to design the game in the first place. That’s because you, Designer, are the expert in this situation – you have specialized knowledge, training and experience in this field that gives you superior insight into the situation. It’s like user testing in product design – if your widget doesn’t work, real-world users will reveal that really quickly. But if you ask them how to fix it, you’ll get as many responses as there are users, because everyone has opinions about things and specific contexts for use and their own preferences, and your job as a designer is to take into account their experience without just averaging their feedback and calling it good.

Other designers are, of course, fellow experts. They have a critical framework within which to place your design and evaluate it. They are problem-solvers in your field, and know how to judge your goal against the expressions of that idea in an evaluative fashion. That’s why they are really helpful to solving the problems you run into (whether stemming from a playtest or any other part of your process). However, because they are creative individuals who think about this kind of stuff a lot, and have a million ideas that haven’t had a chance to see the light yet, they will find opportunities in your design for their ideas if you let them. I see this all the time in group critiques at the early stages of design work – if you say “here’s my basic idea, what do you think,” every designer there will take your idea off in a different direction, dress it in different clothes and make it do a different dance. This is great for brainstorming, but really unhelpful once you have a set goal and you’re trying to solve a particular problem.

Now, playtesting with a group of fellow designers can be the best of both worlds or the worst, depending on your relationship with them, their experience with your creative process and a host of other factors. I’ve had it go both ways; I suspect, though, that a lot of the Ben-you-talking-crazy responses are from people who have healthy playtest groups made of other designers.

Playtesting is critical for a game because games are all about the human element. In short, your game can be as mathematically sound and rigorously written as you like, but only playtesting will tell you if it’s any fun. But that’s also pretty much the only thing that it can tell you better than any other method, and uncritically accepting all your playtesting feedback is unhelpful at best and actively detrimental to your game at worst.