The Coin’s Other Side: On Losing (and Elimination)

This post is going to be quite basic. Basic does not mean that it will be simple, but that it stands at the base. I may not give you answers here, but I’ll present something that any person who designs a game that is competitive, especially one where people win, should think of – the issue of losing, and the related issue of player-elimination.

You see, if your game has victory, there can be several ways in which you reach it, and many of the examples I’d use are from board/card-games. The question is what happens to the losers, and how they lose. This is more of an issue with story-games because of the length of time they may have to sit aside and the expectation of shared creative activity.

One option for winning is you reaching a personal goal, such as reaching level 10 first in Munchkin. Everyone plays till the bitter end, and everyone is more or less as effective in the end as they are in the beginning. This often leads to “King-makers”, players who know they will not win, but can be the ones who decide whether one player wins or another. In some cases, you need to play the other players more than you’re actually playing the cards.

Another option can be seen in Infernal Contraption, and in most competitive CCGs or war-games aimed for two players (Magic: the Gathering and Warhammer being  prime examples), where you don’t win by what you do per se, but you win by being the last player standing. This is not an issue when only two players play, because the game ends for the two players at the same time – one’s win is another’s victory. It is also less of an issue with games slated to run 15-20 minutes, because the loser does not get to sit idle for long.

However, story games and role-playing games have historically been more akin to the game of Diplomacy, where often players are eliminated in the first couple of turns of the game, which can keep going on for a couple more hours. I suspect this is also partially the reason some groups shy away from character-deaths, because it forces the player to stop being involved in the action, or at least they no longer have an active hand in shaping the story. In some groups the player with the dead character uses this time to come up with a new character, especially in mechanically involved games.

These days, it is sometimes less of an issue. Some games are designed to be of a shorter duration, so if one loses their character they are not out of the action for the whole campaign (at least as that character), or even for the duration of a session of a campaign – the game is meant to be played out in whole in one sitting. But still, I think like in board-games that take longer to complete, even an hour a player has to sit idle is less than ideal.

A “game” where this was somewhat solved which came up in my mind when a friend challenged me to design a truly competitive and cut-throat design was Survivor. Yes, the TV show. There the players eliminated after a certain stage get to be the king-makers in the end-game and little less, but it does require attention after they had been ‘eliminated’ from the running. Likewise, I feel that story-games with a competitive bent who decide on elimination should find a way to keep the players so eliminated not only interested, but let them contribute to the story further, and perhaps shape the competition as well ( if the story and the competition are intertwined, it may be so regardless).

Something done by story-games for a number of years now is that players get to affect the direction of the story even when their characters are not present. They get to reward players whose characters do things they enjoy (Primetime Adventures), or perhaps they don’t even have characters that are ‘theirs’, and all they do is guide the story (Universalis), or the designs  where they have characters and affect the creation of the world and shape the story (the “child” design of Mortal Coil, or Shock:).

But then a new question emerges, if you have competition and elimination: What is the measure of “Victory”, and why would you say those who have been ‘eliminated’ have lost? Perhaps they have just lose their chance to claim victory and their “superiority” over the others, but would you also have their effect on the story lessen? This is a Competitive Story Game, remember. I suspect this is one of the things alluded to by people I’ve approached regarding writing of competition and story’s interaction within their games, when they told me the game only has the veneer of competition, because if someone will try to win the game, it’d crack.

You have choices, whether victory is reached when the victor reaches a goal, or through elimination of all other players. Should you pick the former, you should consider how to solve the issue of king-makers, or keeping it in, unrestrained. Should you pick the latter, you should consider how to mitigate the effect of a player not having a hand in the story and game, and perhaps the issue of kingmaking will creep up again. Whatever you do, be mindful of this. Be aware that this is a design choice you are making, and a critical one at that.

This issue is also tied strongly to Social Contract, and to whether a certain group would play your game (at least as written). The issue of a player being left out of the game is something each party should discuss, and your game may not fit what a certain group is willing to accept. You may also consider adding a module in your game, where one can have elimination if one chooses, and play a somewhat different game if they do not wish for there to be such. Choices to be mindful of.

CSI Games: So Why Bother?

I love it when other people do my work for me. So we have a question, “Why do we need someone to push forward the idea of “CSI Games”, a further subdivision of our hobby?”

The answer begins in this post where I outline what CSI Games are to begin with and how they differ from what is out there right now. Expect a more formal answer, one that people could(hopefully) put in their projects’ introduction, soon.

Then along come two people, Paul Czege and Sydney Freedberg and make my point for me:

“..but I think the extended development time is more because my goals are outside the development tradition than anything else. I’m designing for Acts of Evil player characters as static antagonists, and NPCs that emerge from play as protagonists. And I’m trying to provoke creative and interesting antagonism from the players via competition amongst them..”

“Paul, that’s fascinating. (Plus it allows me to console myself, as I labor on the playtest-proven brokeness of the third set of core mechanics for apocalypse girl, that the reason this is so much harder than the two RPGs I designed in college and played with my friends is that I’m trying to do something radically new, even if it is essentially second-generation Capes).”

We have the methods for Simulationism, we have the methods for Narrativism(if only for a short while now), we do not yet possess the tools for Gamism, not in this hobby.
We know how to simulate reality, and in the books we pay for the engine. We know how to format a good narrative, and we charge for the experience. We are now working on the tools to construct constrained competition, and we will charge for the Game Experience.

We do not yet have what we need, we cannot simply say “Take Settlers of Cattan and narrate some story event for each turn”. We are starting anew, and we’re alone, or so it seems.
The experience of those who came before can only take us so far, and look at the net, look at The Forge, what are they if not tools/places to have people meet and help one another?

Those who work on CSI Games should playtest one another’s games. Those who work on CSI Games should help others push towards the CSI Game nature and goals from the board-game and Narrative ends.
If we won’t help one another, no one will. We currently have to work inordinately hard to playtest, since we do not have much to compare our work to.
We have to work inordinately hard to find playtesters, because people have a hard time wrapping their head about what we do.
Even if we ourselves won’t benefit from this meeting of minds now, hopefully things will be easier for the next generation.

Well, I guess that is my mission statement for the CSI Project, thoughts, notes, comments?

On another note, Cranium Rats V. 1.2 Beta is now live, and the game will progress no further till substansive contribution(playtesting) is made by outside parties.

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Game Design as a Viral Disease.

First, for those who did not notice(most of you), I’ve begun syndication of game related, especially CSI related information to a new Blog, aptly called, CSI Games.
A question to my LiveJournal readers, do you find these game posts of any interest?

Second, I want to revise Cranium Rats, but first I need your help. I need more answers regarding the questions presented in this thread.

Now that we got that out of the way, onward!
This thread directly ties in to my earlier post regarding memes, on second thought it also ties to this post about Addictions. I believe Game Design (we’ll talk mainly of RPGs and TCGs here) is a disease, a viral disease. That may not be a negative thing, but it is something to be considered.

So there you are, sitting and reading a game book, and “Zing!” goes the light-bulb, when you notice something which needs some changing.
Thus you get House-Rules.
There you are still, playing a game, for example D&D 3ed or Exalted, and you want something that is not there, a new Prestiege Class, a new Martial Arts Style.
Thus you get Fan Material.
There you are, still, and boy doesn’t your butt ache from sitting down for so long? But you sure are persistent, and now you’re mucking about with Magic: the Gathering, and you’re building your deck for an upcoming tournament. Cutting down cards to 60 is hard, it feels like you’re sacrificing your own children.
Thus you get Design Process.

So you sat down and did all that, but you decided you want to do some more. You’ve been infected.
The above is how the disease transmits. It is easy to transmit, it is easy to carry, it is easy to keep alive even if somewhat dormant.
The virus does not stay content forever though, once you had flexed your designer muscles you find it easier to flex them once more. Such is the nature of muscles.
Once you set down the road it is easier to continue upon it.

So you start with Exalted, and you find that it is missing a Martial Arts style you desire, so you add one. Now you find Intimacies don’t do what you want, so you delve deeper into the kernels of the game, changing some basics of the game and much of how the rules apply to this specific case.
Then you are ready to progress to the next step. Exalted is no longer good enough. It just doesn’t do what you want it to, so you make your game, wholly your creation.

So it seems we’ve covered the “Why” you design games; you begin by designing pieces and then you grow in skill enough to design games.
It is the other way around, that is the “How”. You get the virus in you and so you begin designing(it’s often transmitted by holes and missing appendages in other games that call to you to fill them), once you build your muscles you move to bigger projects. You don’t go on a scale because that’s what you can do and as you go up you get more capable of taking on bigger tasks, you take on smaller tasks in order to prepare yourself for Game Design.

Game Design propagates the virus.
You design games because you can’t stop.

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