Cart and Horse

When I was in college, I was a TA for a professor who was also a fancy-pants consultant. One day, he comes in a few minutes late to class and tosses me his keys. “Couldn’t find a parking spot,” he says and he tells me where he was double parked.

I put on my coat and head outside, a little aflutter because he talked about his damned Jaguar S-Class all the time. I got in. The seat, steering wheel and mirrors adjusted to me instantly. The car then said, “Would you like a massage and a cocktail?” Okay, the last part I made up, but it was pretty luxurious. I may have taken a second lap around campus looking for a spot. Hey, it was crowded and snowing. Tough to find a spot.

Anyway, the next day I hike over to the student lot, jiggle the key to open my problematic 1990 Jeep Cherokee whose door handles don’t particularly work and whose heater/AC blows cold air in the winter and warm air in the summer. Now, coming from my professor’s sweet ride I probably should have been spoiled on driving my beater, but I wasn’t. I loved that car.

It’s about expectations. When you drive a $60,000 car, you have a set of expectations about how it should feel, handle and look. With your hand-me-down thirteen-year old car you have different expectations. Honestly, I’d be stressed out to death driving that Jaguar around in the snow and ice on CMU’s crowded campus on a daily basis. Give me my Jeep any day.

I’m getting to a point about games.

I’ve been having interviews with a lot of companies, both packaged and social game makers, and it’s been challenging my assumptions. One of the companies is a traditional game maker shifting to a social game portfolio. We discussed significantly the differing fundamental processes used in each type of production. My most recent call with another really brought up a core difference in the consumption of the two around the concept of demos.

Both traditional and “social” games (I use the term loosely here for any free-to-play game supported by microtransactions) have free versions. In social, these are the primary interface. In traditional, these are demos. Social advocates would have you think that they are equivalent. And for a while, I believed that social games were their own demos.

I recently picked up Recettear on a Steam holiday sale. It’s a charming little economic sim slash RPG about running an item shop in a JRPG setting. It’s a bit grindy and at times feels like it could be a more hardcore Cafe World without time-lock mechanics. I paid $5.00 for Recettear yet I would never pay $5.00 for Cafe World, even if it was a little richer dynamically. Why?

When I paid $5.00 for Recettear, I knew it was an all-you-can-eat affair. My expectations were set. I could play this as much as I wanted and my success or failure at extracting fun out of it would be entirely independent of the price I paid. When I play a demo, it is showing me a hint of what I can get for my $5.00. When I get into it, I know I will get an old Jeep or a Jaguar when I pay my entry fee. The demo is representative of the experience. Even if there was no demo, I still know that I will get a complete curated experience for $5.00.

If I were to pay $5.00 in Cafe World, I would get the benefit of some boost or mechanic or decoration. But my success or failure at having fun is based not only on the internal mechanics which I see in the “demo” version but whether or not I convert. But even after I convert, I don’t know if I am getting a beater Jeep or a Jaguar because there are always more bits and pieces to buy, any of which may or may not increase the fun I have with the game. It’s like a real world version of Zeno’s Paradox where you keep moving but are never any closer to your goal. This has nothing to do with psychological trickery or underhandedness. It is simply the nature of a free game where the potential of unlimited spend is core to the experience (unlike something like WoW, which is fairly complete on its own despite PDLC and provides value in exchange for a subscription fee). It’s like if you went to the movie theater to watch Star Wars for and got in for free but they purposely made it lame unless you put enough quarters into a slot on your seat to see light sabres ($1.25), X-Wings ($2.00) and Alderaan blow up ($3.25). You would feel ripped off, whereas you wouldn’t if you had paid the $6.50 beforehand.

Note that this is different than buying a traditional game with paid downloadable content. In those cases, either you are ignorant of the true cost or it must be incorporated into the full price of the game. If the former is the case, it is a case of misinformation, not design. But how do you do this for Farmville? How much does it cost to play Farmville?

In my quest to figure out whether I want to actually be a social game designer, my key question is not whether the studio uses A/B tests too much but whether the studio believes that fun is independent of spend and whether it should be. I can get behind a social game maker where the designer’s goal is to make a fun game that has a good chance of making money versus the goal of making money with a good chance of the game being fun. I believe strongly that you can do that in the “social” space, but it is going to require innovative business models and more than lip service to craft. I’ll gladly lend my skills to a place whose goal and processes are dedicated to crafting the best games in the world and who doesn’t define “best” by immediate plurality.

Deciding who fits that bill… that’s the tricky part.

Airport Rush and Little Failures

You need to fail to get better. It’s a tenet of design, really any endeavor.

A few months ago, I commented on a board game I was working on that I was proud of called “Airport Rush”. No, don’t look. I’ve un-published the posts. I had worked on it for a number of months and had been stewing on the concept for even longer.

As you know from my Dominion randomizer, I’m a big fan of that particular card game. But I find that the cost balance is really decided by the group playing. If everyone tries to buy Chapel whenever it comes out, should it not be more expensive than two for that group? Should Treasure Map not cost five if it is bought in every game in your group? When you are dealing with cardboard instead of digital, you can’t make those switches on the fly without confusing house rules. But this stoked an interest of mine in designing a board or card game that was as self-balancing as possible.

So I spent roughly five months prototyping and playtesting and tweaking Airport Rush. In it, you get a number of passengers per turn and can fly them out or sit them on special cards that give you additional choices. The cards don’t have a cost. Whoever has the most passengers tied up on one gets the benefit. Thus, you spend the possibility of current points at a market rate for an ability which you judge to be worth more by endgame. The balance worked perfectly – I’ve never played a game, even with noobs, that was a runaway yet the player making the best decisions rarely lost.

I was excited enough about it that when my friend Mark said he was going to GenCon to pitch one of his designs, I was right there with him. My playtesters were asking to play Airport Rush. That’s a good sign!

After getting my appointment pushed back, I finally sat with one of the major board game publishers in the business. I removed the board and pieces from my backpack and gave some overview of the game. I had barely finished what choices one has on a turn when I got my first (and one could say, final) feedback.

“The theme doesn’t work.”

I paused. “What do you mean?”

“Who is the player that he can move passengers around an airport? Is he an airline? Then it doesn’t make sense that he can put passengers on flights to different cities.”

Now, it appears to me that there are two different methods to board game design. Either you can come up with clever mechanics to meet some sort of aesthetic end and apply a theme on top of it for flavor with a stronger coupling helping to flesh out that theme, or you can start with a theme and build mechanics around that theme. In the former case, you tend to get stronger systems with themes that are questionable at times. Look at Puerto Rico. How can you be a Governor and a Mayor simultaneously? How can you choose when there is a harvest? Why can you only have one type of good on a ship? Look at Dominion. Who the hell are you in Dominion? Look at Race for the Galaxy. That game makes absolutely no sense thematically. In the latter case, you tend to get very strong themes with more bland game systems. Obviously, I went the former route. The game systems work very well and I thought the theme worked well to support those but not perfectly.

I knew the publisher’s lineup and thought this fit. First impressions mean everything. I blew mine.

I realized I wasn’t getting anywhere with that, so I took out my backup. It was a card game called New York Minute. In it, you place New York landmarks and try to get three in a row.

“You are placing known landmarks. The Statue of Liberty isn’t next to Broadway. It doesn’t make sense.”

Scoop.

Later in the weekend, I met with a small publisher who expressed serious interest in New York Minute only to renege by email a few weeks later. GenCon was a bust. I was so defeated by my experience that I unpublished the Airport Rush posts I had made on here. Now that I’ve had time to reflect, maybe it isn’t such a failure. What should I do with the designs? Keep working on them? Shelve them and try something new? Try to produce them myself? Kickstarter? Keep sending to publishers I didn’t meet at GenCon? The games are good fun and unique, I know this and I want to share them.

My tenacity is not the problem. I just don’t know what to do next. It’s not so much a design problem as a business problem. If you were looking for some lesson beyond “failure happens”, I’m afraid I don’t have one for you all on this particular post.

Horseshoe and the Declaration of Designer Independence

I had a transformative experience this past week. I attended the fifth annual Project Horseshoe at the Canyon of the Eagles. Horseshoe is a conference/retreat where game designers from all walks (packaged games, casual games, social games, ARGs, artists, teachers, simulation) get together and talk about the issues facing the field. Unlike sifting through the throngs at GDC, there are no wannabes at Horseshoe. I had the honor of meeting over thirty of the smartest, most inspiring doers in the industry.

I’ve “met” people at GDC. You talk for a few minutes: “what are you working on? Oh yeah? Here’s my card” before scurrying off to another session that someone is only presenting because it got them a free badge. Horseshoe was wonderfully different. I got to really know some fantastic people and get some work done. I highly recommend making the trip if you have experience and want to be with other folks who want to change the world. I’ll explain more in future posts, but I have something I want to address here.

Our group was concerned about the treatment of design as a skill in this age where design is not only seen as unnecessary by many companies but as an evil that needs to be contained by formal testing procedures. The majority of us in the group have been in the position where best practices in design were thrown aside by higher-ups and our output was worsened for it. So our goal over the weekend was to answer two questions: 1) How do we convince decision makers that design is something that contributes to the bottom line? 2) How do we unite designers together to support them in personal growth and help them to avoid situations where they are crushed by authority?

Ambitious, yes.

What we were able to do over a two day period was come to an agreement on a set of principles that are a starting point for something like a clan of designers. Again, this is all very work in progress, but what we have was received very enthusiastically by the larger group and signed by two dozen. This is the starting point for a formal report that we are preparing that will live on the Project Horseshoe site. As a forewarning, this is only the position of the drafters and the cosigners of the document, not all attendees or the group behind Project Horseshoe.

Declaration of Designer Independence
Drafted by Daniel Cook, Dustin Clingman, Patricia Pizer, Devin Knudson and Zack Hiwiller.

  1. Without game design, there is nothing.
  2. Designers must own the vision of the game.
  3. We dedicate ourselves to the lifelong craft of design.
  4. We strive to be renaissance designers.
    • We speak the language of creative.
    • We speak the language of production.
    • We speak the language of business.
    • We speak the language of development.
  5. We will not be silenced. We tirelessly promote our vision both internally and to the public.
  6. We fearlessly embrace new markets and trends. We then reinvent them to be better.
  7. We demand the freedom to fail.
  8. We have a choice between creating with our own voices or whoring ourselves out to the exploiters.

Let me explain further.

Declaration one is a recognition that great games have existed for thousands of years before there were 3d tools, before there were high-level languages, before there were teams putting games together. Look at Mancala, Go, or Chess. All of these are great designs. There has never been a great game without a great design. This is the importance of design.

The first objection I hear is that this is some sort of egoist document, meant to pat designers on the head and tell them they are special little flowers. Or perhaps that it is needlessly territorial, that it ignores the importance of programmers, artists, animators, businessmen, producers and so forth. This is not the case. A sail cannot function as designed without a boat. Boats can exist without sails, but move slower and cannot achieve greater purpose. Forgive the terrible comparison, but we certainly recognize and appreciate the crucial roles that must be filled to put a game out there.

Declaration two is a statement of responsibility for game projects. There are many stakeholders in a project. On modern game projects you have producers, engineers, artists, composers, marketers, public relations, designers, testers and customers. There is the view that each of these parts are cogs that all have to turn in unison to make a project work. We reject that view. Because design is the crucial element, designers have to be the ones who drive the direction of the game. Again, this is not a statement of arrogance that designers are the only group that matters. In fact, we acknowledge that these other groups are so important that designers must understand the needs of each of the groups in order to go forward.

Our language is limited in that we must call this “ownership” as if it were owning a home. “Stewardship” is likewise too weak. Hopefully we were clear enough.

Many arguments have been had already that this means only a Game Director has power and responsibility. I disagree. Designers can be of entire projects (and usually are at the indie level) or of particular silos at the AAA level (features, levels, etc.) Together, junior designers and senior designers must share the ownership while still maintaining a unique and unified vision. It is certainly tougher at the AAA level, but there is more at stake.

Declaration three is another attack at designers as arrogant controllers. We understand that design is a craft that can be honed. Horseshoe had hundreds of collected man-years of experience present, yet none of us there considered ourselves masters of the craft or else we wouldn’t be attending and trying to hone that craft.

Declaration four is a follow-up on declaration two. Because we must drive the vision, we must understand all of the components of the project. To ignore business because of design concerns would be just as bad as the status quo where design is ignored because of business concerns.

Declaration five sounds revolutionary but truly isn’t. Since we are the project’s champions, we must act the part internally and externally. In order to bring design forward in the public consciousness, we must represent it by being honest and proud of our accomplishments. Companies that attempt to silence their talent are working against their best interests.

Declaration six is a direct response to the social games revolution of the past few years. Many designers were taken aback by this new genre and its ramifications. But successful designers have nothing to fear by shifting ground because they learn and adapt. Social games have not made designers obsolete, it has only made designers who stick their heads in the sand and let themselves get replaced by A/B tests obsolete.

Declaration seven is, to me, the most important. When we read this at the Horseshoe presentations, we received a round of applause. Design is not a formula where you can plug in some variables and receive a solution. It is an iterative process where one can get better with practice and re-implementation. Business-oriented folks do not like this because they cannot plan as specifically. But whether you care about it or not, it is a fact that the waterfall method does not work for game design. Hundreds of GDC talks and papers, postmortems and barside discussions support this. In order to be respected as a craft, we have to stand up for the methods that will allow us to succeed and simply providing the resources to allow for failure is the most critical method we can advocate.

Declaration eight is purposefully argumentative. There are employers who exploit designers as if they could be milked for design monads as if they were assembling widgets. Designers all over the world are being treated as commodities. Design is not a commodity. This will continue to be vogue until talented designers stand up. The prevailing attitude is “My way or the highway.” But the economy is poor and we tend to be conservative and scared. We have to be willing to pick “the highway” if conditions do not improve. Look at all the designers living their dreams as indies. Why can’t they be successful in corporate environments? There is nothing stopping them but a change in culture. We intend to change that culture one designer at a time.

All of us encourage discussion on these points. This is only a starting document. There is much work to do and we hope that you will share these and discuss them with others. Where are we horribly mistaken? What do we have right? Only with your help can we start to change a culture. Please comment here and other places and let’s bring these issues to the forefront.

I’ll comment about next steps in subsequent posts.