A point about game design

Monday’s post attracted a couple of interesting comments, and I’ve pulled out this one from EJ to reply as a post because I didn’t want it to get lost in the mix. It’s an interesting point, and worth discussing as it applies to every type of game.

His original comment went like this:

“I’ve heard it said that “looks pretty” is what sells games, and “plays well” is what creates retention and builds a community. I don’t know whether this is the case globally but it matches my experience.

As such, a pretty table with pretty models will draw people in and give them a flavourful first game, which is always worth doing because nobody ever plays a second game unles they enjoyed the first. However, as Thomas Cato says, one needs to examine the abstract game which lurks behind the prettiness. If you play any game for long enough you start to see the maths which lies behind it, and if this maths isn’t fun then the game isn’t fun – as you have memorably pointed out with Warhammer and mental geometry.

In this case, with small model counts and large open spaces, my intuition is that this abstract gameplay will be mostly about first-move advantage and firepower, rather than about morale or maneuver. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, but needs to be deliberate on your part rather than an emergent property of the assumptions you made.

I’m interested in seeing what your thoughts are about system…”

There are a number of things I’d like to pick up on here.

Firstly, the idea that pretty sells, and gameplay retains. I think that’s largely true, and like I said above, true whether you’re talking about computer games or board games. Tabletop games could be thought of as a slightly different kettle of fish because the gamer determines a fair slice of whether they are pretty or not themselves with their painting and modelling skills. Still, cack models and duff art won’t impress anyone, so I’d argue that it broadly holds up here too.

One conversation I often have with clients is about how “sticky” a game is, or could be made to be, and what makes it more or less so. By sticky they mean retains gamers, and keeps pulling them back for more. That’s probably a whole post on its own, though good game play, and replayability without becoming repetitive is probably a good starting point.

Having played games for a very long time, and spent so much time taking them apart for work, I find it hard not to see the underlying structure. And, in many ways, that’s where I find the attraction of many games. Some designers create such elegant and beautiful structures that I can’t help but admire them, even if I don’t actually like the game itself (for example, if the theme fails to appeal). That said, games should be about making interesting (and difficult or challenging) choices, and if a game fails to offer these then it doesn’t matter how clever the mechanics are.

So I agree with EJ that these two broad threads run through each design (pretty and game play). However, I don’t think he’s right in implying that we have to pick one or the other. I think we can have both. I certainly hope we can because that’s what I always aim for in my own work and would hate to be so fundamentally misguided 🙂

Of course, there are plenty of examples of pretty games you’d not want to play twice, or unattractive games which you play till they fall apart. Fewer games make it to be both really nice to look at and great to play again and again. That’s a shame, but being hard to do is no reason to give up trying to make them both.

As far as Old Skool Skirmish is concerned, I’m trying to make an engaging game because I’m writing it for me to play. Of course I want to play it repeatedly (and I have to in order to playtest it), and I’m not going to do that if I find it dull. I’m a fairly harsh critic too, and quick to see problems in a system, so I have set a fairly high bar for OSS to reach. But I would say that 🙂

As far as appearance goes, my comments about making it look really good are based on decades of looking at thousands of gaming tables, and 90% of the time being underwhelmed by what I saw. Again, I want to aim high for this new set of models and terrain I paint and build. I’ve not done any real painting or modelling for years, and so I’m coming at it all fresh. Sort of. I want to go for the ideal, and for me that is making something that looks like a great diorama – a diorama on which you can move the figures and play. I know this is an even higher bar, and I may not reach it. However, by trying for that ideal I may get somewhere close, and I can build on that.

EJ’s comment about “first move and firepower” is also interesting. I see where he’s coming from, and a low model count game could indeed end up not working, or having a single initiative roll which was overwhelmingly important. OSS doesn’t do things quite like that. It’s sequencing is done by a chit draw, and while there will obviously be someone that goes first, there is enough mud in the water for things to be quite tense as the turn unfolds. It’s a bit of a retro approach, and that’s deliberate. Perhaps it’s not as slick as some later mechanics I could think of, and again, that’s intentional. It does, however, allow for some gameplay which I haven’t worked out another way to replicate, and I really like that. I was going to explain a bit more, but this post’s already a bit long, so I’ll spare you the details for now. Suffice to say that yes, it’s a potential worry, but I think I’ve worked a way round it in OSS so the game can both look pretty and play nicely every time 🙂

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9 Responses to A point about game design

  1. Pingback: Aesthetics vs Gameplay in the Old Skool Skirmish | The Beautiful Void

  2. Thanks Jake. I’m honoured that you replied.

    Because I’m a verbose person, please find my reply-to-a-reply here:
    https://thebeautifulvoidblog.wordpress.com/2016/06/30/aesthetics-vs-gameplay-in-the-old-skool-skirmish/

    • Quirkworthy says:

      *I posted this on your site too, but I’m keeping a copy here for reference 🙂

      I think you’re right about many game designs coming (or appearing to come) from one end or the other of that spectrum, and also about the fact that handling customer expectations is important. That’s true of selling pretty much anything though, whether it’s cars or food. Looked at in that light, aspects of game design bleed into marketing.

      Regarding OSS, I have considered deliberately including errors as part of the vibe, though I haven’t actually done that (so far). A slight clunkiness could be argued to be part of that nostalgia too, and it’s tempting. Given my natural inclination towards the other end, I am having a fun time arguing with myself about what’s best 🙂

      I’m not sure I am pitching OSS on aesthetics rather than game play. Certainly, that wasn’t really my intention. A major part of the nostalgia angle is about how the game plays. The aesthetics thing is more how I want to make stuff for my own collection. In terms of the game’s appearance on the table, well, as a skirmish game with no dedicated model range, that’s very much up to the end user and out of my control. Sure, what I do publicly for it may set an expectation. You won’t be able to buy it though, so it’s a different beast from, say, Deadzone where the models and terrain are all available off the shelf.

      The Plaza isn’t my only playtest environment, simply the one I’m going to try and build a nice version of first. I am very familiar with the problem you flag here, and will be using less pretty mock-up terrain and bits borrowed from wherever I can find them to try out jungle fights, spaceship interiors, and whatnot. But I’ve got to start somewhere, and the Plaza seemed like the simplest build.

      One thought which just struck me is that I don’t think I’ve really posted about OSS in its own right. The Plaza comments are really coming from a different angle, and are incidental. Or course, this may not be as apparent to you as it is to me, sitting here with a very different data set to play with. All part of OSS sliding out into the world without a marketing plan 🙂

  3. I don’t think it is just “first” move. We stopped playing Mordheim because the difference in movement between the fastest and slowest species meant that anyone playing Dwarfs was incentivized to force a stalemate for any scenario they couldn’t reasonably complete. This was incredibly frustrating for the other player. (Frostgrave doesn’t have this issue because it has the move stat on the role not the race, and doesn’t have turn related victory conditions.)

    • Quirkworthy says:

      I don’t think it’s any specific mechanic. For me, individual rules are just tools in your kit that you can use well or poorly. It’s the overall result that matters, and you can get both good and bad results with almost any given mechanic.

      • I’ve found that the same mechanic can work either well or badly, depending on how it fits with the aesthetics of the game.

        Earlier this year, I was at a gaming event in which I was asked to teach a group of people to play Love Letter. The set proferred to me for this purpose was Batman-themed. It had been acquired by a person who was a huge Batman fan and really wanted to play it because it was Batman themed, not because he liked Love Letter.

        During the game I could see the fun ebbing out of him, as he slowly came to the realisation that while the game may have had pictures of Batman and the Joker on it, it didn’t feel like Batman. Love Letter is an excellent game and a triumph of good mechanics design but it just wasn’t appropriate for the setting.

        • Quirkworthy says:

          The connection between theme and rules is sometimes non-existent. This doesn’t stop a game being good and enjoyable as long as you weren’t expecting the theme to be the main thing, as your unfortunate example was here. I suppose that’s not really any different from expecting something to be deep and engaging only to find it frivolous ands silly, or vice versa. Expectation v reality all round.

  4. mattadlard says:

    This is a lot of ways is like working with ones literary or otherwise hero’s the realities do not match up wit the idealised mental images you have, same seems to go with popular themes and games.

    With anything you invest time in if it grabs you and draws you in then its a good thing and time well spent investing in.

  5. Gibby Hart says:

    From my personal experience yes a pretty game does draw you in. But for me seeing how a game is played regardless of the look has kept me playing games. Simple art style or a very stylized art direction in a game has always been more intriguing than anything. With the comment about table top games I far prefer Warmachine/Hordes over Warhammer 40k any day. The rules are far easier to grasp withing a game or two but with that said it doesn’t mean that the game cannot get complex. You learn quick that your order of activation is the key to winning and after a quick glance at each card you can see a general strategy very quickly. Warhammer can be that way but in the end the rules have become convoluted to an extent. When it comes to video games pretty doesn’t get you anywhere if the mechanics are crap.

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