Thursday, May 5, 2011

Where and how to start game design? (Part 3)

This is the concluding part of the three part article about where and how to start game design. People who have just arrived can click  (Part 1) and (Part 2) to understand what the hoopla is all about.

Rule 6 - Balance the game such that all the players should be able to make a comeback
I often refer to it as the 'point of no return'. This is the point when a player knows that he needs to restart his game or let his character die in order to make another, perhaps successful, attempt. If such a situation should arise in your game quite early, it should ring alarm bells. While designing the board game, you should make sure that the rules that you frame for the player allow him to make a complete come back and turn the tables on his opponents even when the case seems hopelessly out of hand. This not only keeps the lagging player interested but also keeps the leading player on a constant alert to perform. Because until the last turn is played out, nobody really knows who is going to win. Ideally, there should not be a point of no return unless the die is rolled for the last time. Quite a few games do it very well.

Risk, Chinese Checkers and Scrabble knowingly or unknowingly use this principle to keep the players engaged.

Rule 7 - No dominant strategy to win the game
Dominant strategy is a way of playing the game that assures or almost assures victory. Usually when your game depends too heavily on the skill level of the player and keeps the chance part to a bare minimum, you are invariably heading for a game that will have a dominant strategy. However, skill and chance imbalance are not the only causes of a dominant strategy but also how well balanced or fair your game rules are. A lot of play testing and iterations are required to remove any vestiges of such strategies.

Rule 8 - Keep the social aspect of the game alive
When two or more people come together to play a game, the social interaction between them is just as important as the game itself. The more rewarding the social experience is, the greater is the addiction value. I had an aspiring game designer who had designed a board game and asked me to review it. After looking at the board and the rules, I asked him to play test the game with his friends and figure it out for himself. He went on and played the game with his father. Eventually the father made him leave gaming field altogether. Coming back to the point, the board game was designed such that one player would take about 15 minutes to finish his turn and then the other player would start his turn, which would go on for another 15 minutes or so. And while this undulation continued, the waiting guy was just made to wait. So instead of promoting social interaction, the game (if it can be called one) bored the people. And while one player thought about how to take out the opponent's tokens, the waiting guy probably thought about taking out the other guy altogether.
Chess keeps both the players totally involved irrespective of whose turn it is. Risk does the same and makes you form unwritten alliances or back stab someone. That game is as much a game on board as it is off it. Monopoly goes a step ahead and makes you enjoy the opponent's turn more than your own.

Rule 9 - Allow the player to make his own rules and play it
Scrabble is a burning example of this. Not only do rules vary from country to country, but they also vary from household to household, locality to locality. In fact as I write this there are set rules when it is played at my home. RULE- No use of official Scrabble dictionary words like OI, NM, QI etc. And until I bothered to read through the entire rule set of scrabble (Remember Rule 1?), we used to allow users to make use of Triple Word, Double Word, Triple Letter multipliers any number of times (so long as you formed a word using that tile space). Which used to result in insane scores such as 550 vs. 498 etc. Still, with all these rules, we never found Scrabble to be unfair or boring. It was just as challenging. So whether it is ignorance or innovation, allow enough head room for your players to change your game and still keep it interesting.

Rule 10 - Play-test, Iterate and Refine
An idea is like disheveled hair on a particularly bad hair day. You will have to wash it, shampoo it, gel it, comb it etc to make it presentable (I love the way I draw parallels). Any game idea in its exact IDEA state never makes a good game. The idea will always need to change and alter itself in order to make it game worthy and entertaining. The best way to ensure that you entertain your players is to play-test, look at the outcomes, make corresponding changes, reiterate, play-test and refine. The more you do it, the better your game would be.

Now you know where and how to start game design :). If you are the rare and raring type, start NOW!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Where and how to start game design? (Part 2)

Don't ask me how much but, believe me, it takes a lot of will power, character and self control to not talk about Osama, Obama, where the world is heading and most importantly how incapable the Indian Government is to do anything about anything (With a disapproving shake of the head and an inverted crescent of lips). Wherever you look, posts and articles abound about them like that mirror room in Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon. I was almost tempted to name this article 'Obaba Obama ne Osama Oodavla.' Which in Marathi means 'Look Dad, Obama took out Osama.' Anyway ...

In the previous article we discussed about the need to learn board game design and in this one we will actually learn the first 5 of the most critical rules of board game design.

Rule 1 - Restrict the number of rules and keep them simple. (Better than 'Follow rule number 2 and onwards' heh?)
And I am not joking. Imagine a bunch of bored kids wanting something quick to play with. And 99% of the times, one of the kids will not know the rules of the game at all. Now imagine the resistance to play your game if other bored kids have to explain a booklet full of game rules to the new kid.

Rule 2 - Equal focus on chance and skill
This is a rule that should apply to pretty much any game ever created. And any game that follows this rule will surely be a resounding success. Chess? The only chance or piece of luck you get is whether your opponent is a worse player than you. The game banks heavily on skill and therefore has a niche market. Snakes and ladders? Banks too much on chance and virtually no skill is applied. Again, you won't find a couple of grown ups playing this kind of a game with each other.
On the other hand check out these games...
Monopoly? Yes. Trivial Pursuit? Yes. Scrabble? Definitely yes. Risk? Yes. And these games are vastly more successful only because they balance out skill and chance.

Rule 3 - The board layout should be self explanatory (Cause it then makes your job of keeping the rules to a minimum easier)

Look at the following examples. (I can now put some pictures in the blog post :) )

For all you know this can be a pattern on someone's underwear. If a guy who has never really played chess takes a look at this, won't understand anything by looking at the board.

Slightly better example of board design. Most important values and indicators are on the board itself.

Easiest and the best board design. You can explain this game to anyone in 4 to 5 sentences. Rest all is on the board.

Rule 4 - Use easily available tools and material for the design purpose
 An hourglass, 6 dice, 39 marbles, an electric count down timer, a circuit board, batteries and soldier shaped tokens are a big NO . All these items are not easily available and the more inaccessible the item is, the greater the delay it will cause for you to play-test and refine it.

Pen, pencils, paper, cardboard, water colors, a couple of dice, something that will serve as a token should help.

Rule 5 - Player should be able to identify with the game
Keep your target audience in mind. If you make a board game themed on Australian aborigines traditions and customs and expect it to be a hit in India, you are heading for a disaster. Similarly selling a Cricket based board game in the United States of America is a bad idea. While a very deep strategy game that features Pokemon characters will be a flop with strategy gamers and kids alike. So give a thought to the age group, ethnicity, culture, relevance and many such factors before you go gung-ho about your awesome game. The universal the theme is, the greater are the chances of success.

That's it for now. Hang in there and drop by sometime soon for the remaining 5 extremely important points.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Where and how to start game design? (Part 1)

Long time and no see. I have been kind of busy with work, playing a lot of games, telling stories to Vevina, boring her into sleep (telling stories and boring her are two different points...observe the comma in between - if you doubt me, read the very interesting storytelling article.) and reading Kenneth Anderson's hunting stories. But now I am back.

So let us get on with today's topic without any further ado. Where and how to start game design?

A lot of aspirants ask me this question. And because they are aspirants they expect me to suggest a tool or a course. We have already done away with the courses and tools are the last things you should touch should you decide to pursue game design. You won't become a surgeon if you just hold a scalpel without knowing what to do with it, would you? So before you go and learn that Game Maker, GMax, DromEd, Hammer or UnrealEd, get the basics right.

In essence all the games share the same DNA. Be it an outdoor game, a board game, a card game or a video game. And while a lot can be taught and written about how to really design a great game, you won't really learn game design by reading my blog post or anyone else's post for that matter. The point that I am getting at is, the faster you get your hands dirty in actually designing the games, the faster you will understand the principles, the better it is for you.

And while you are making a foray into game design, what really matters is how capable you really are at entertaining and engaging people. So it can be safely said that a wonderful board game design is worth more than a lame Play Station or a PC game. This statement is only meant for those people who see games through digital eyes. Historically, none of the most successful video games come even close to the most successful board games. And if you study various board games from a design perspective, you will understand the amount of thought and good design principles put into these games to make them immensely replayable and fun.

Before anything can be said about how to design board games, it is quite important to answer why should one design board games.
  • They do not require any software knowledge and therefore are easier to prototype.
  • They can be designed with the help of a pencil, paper and some brains (Hopefully I am not expecting too much).
  • Board games in their easiest form are very easy to construct, play and test.
  • They let you concentrate more on the game-play, game mechanics and fun rather than mastery over tools and software. (Experienced game developers will know how long it usually takes to  make a video game truly fun to play. Especially the time taken to iterate).
  • The principles learnt while designing board games can be directly applied to video game design.
  • Bad ideas (of which there will be a lot initially and you will not know they are bad) can be easily be tested and weeded out from your designs without wasting a lot of effort in programming them.
  • You can, if you take it seriously, understand the entire game development process from pre-production to delivery if you stick to your board game long enough.
  • As a fresher, a solid board game can tilt the scale in your favor while getting hired.
If you are convinced enough to learn more about board game design, drop by sometime soon. I will then disclose the 10 most critical rules of board game design.