Before I start recommending development methods for Longest Game entries, I figured I should describe them first. What follows is an incomplete list of tools for development:

Analytical Methods:

  • Calculate Probability – this is directly calculating the probability of different outcomes and ensuring that those meet your design goals. This method works best when the piece you are analyzing is entirely random, such as a die mechanic, a sequence of card draws, or the intersection of simple probabilities.
  • Estimate Biases – since games are played by humans (for the most part), you don’t just want to know what the actual likelihoods are, but you can use some of the research on statistical heuristics and biases to estimate how a person will perceive those uncertain events in play.
  • Statistical Players – many games have the outcomes heavily depend on player choices, whether revealed or hidden. This can provide intractable for a direct probability analysis, unless you first model the players as statistical decision makers – turning some archetypal play strategies into automatic or weighted random selections among the options. Statistical players can be a powerful tool to enable solitaire testing of parts of your game (see below).
  • Game Theory Methods – another way to handle player choice is to consider strategies and outcomes in a simple game. However, game theory works best in cases with definite, quantitative outcomes and a fixed number of decisions.

Experimental Methods:

  • Experimental Probability – with or without statistical players, you can repeat procedures of your game to determine the actual outcome likelihoods. There are two ways to do this, using a computer lets you run a huge number of tests quickly, but doing it by hand also tells you about things like how long and how mentally intensive your procedure is.
  • Pocket Testing – repeatedly performing any procedure  or other fixed section in your game’s life cycle can tell you more than probability, it can help you determine the enjoyment level and mental and creative effort of the procedure and can help you refine it in isolation. This can be done with live players, statistical players, or if your game permits in a regular solitaire mode.
  • Solitaire Testing – the easiest way to test a game in a protracted solitaire is if the game naturally supports it, otherwise statistical players are a powerful tool to enable it.
  • General Play Testing – this is what we normally think of as play testing. How much you get out of play testing often depends on the clarity of your goals in testing and your metrics, i.e. how the game is reported and measured.

Each of these methods is intended to give you useful data on how your game works and what might improve it. Always be careful about being clear in your goals for each method, and not compromising those along the way. For example, if you want to test your text understand-ability, explaining procedures to players during that test will undermine that goal. However, if you wanted to test those procedures than it is better to make sure they are followed correctly regardless of the text.

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Genre Invention

February 8, 2013

Genre emulation is a very common goal in playing and designing games. In the most general sense, this means that as you play the game you create something resembling an artistic work in some pre-existing category*. Often this emulation is almost wilfully imperfect, the classic Dungeons and Dragons play rarely created a perfect emulation of traditional fantasy fiction or the wargames from which it was birthed. Instead, apparently accidentally, it created a new category of fiction, which we might call D&D fantasy. And entire movements in game play and design have arisen trying to better emulate that genre.

It is impressive that D&D has created a new genre, but not immediately surprising. Periodically a new genre is created, often based on a seminal work. But in the case of D&D that genre really is RPGs, a genre of games of which D&D is a crucial, trend-setting example. The emergence of D&D fantasy says that this one invention created two very different genres at the same time – one in terms of construction and another in terms of its product. Indeed the process of play can produce more than one new form of art, just look at the creation of dungeons and their maps.

To me, the question raised by all of this is whether D&D is some unique case, or if we can invent new genres accidentally or even intentionally so that they arise during play. This is something that makes designing RPGs, story games, or what have you into something distinct from other kinds of art, it is a form of expression that begets other forms of expression. So what happens when we start looking at designing and intentionally playing games in such a way as to explore and create new genres, new configurations of fiction and ideas? That’s just one of the frontiers I look forward to exploring.

* In Forge-style terms, this includes both Story Now (Narrativism) and Right to Dream (Simulationism), the crucial difference being the choice of category. It also suggests there is tremendous space beyond these agendas, such as emulating poetic forms.

Political campaigns collect money for getting votes. What if we eliminated the middle man? What if all the campaign donations for a candidate were split up and paid out evenly to the people who voted for that candidate?

How different would the elections be? Is bribing the voters overtly better or worse than manipulating them with that money? In the very least it might significantly improve voter turn-out.