Rams’ Ten Principles of ‘Good Design’

I was poking around the interwebs, as you do, when I stumbled upon the ten design principles of Dieter Rams.  Rams is an industrial designer who used to work for Braun in post-war West Germany.  He designed some of the most iconic consumer electronics of the period and his functionalist design ethos heavily influenced Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive and their work at Apple.  How could this possibly relate to game design, you might ask?  Read on!

Good design:

1. Is innovative – The possibilities for innovation are not, by any means, exhausted. Technological development is always offering new opportunities for innovative design. But innovative design always develops in tandem with innovative technology, and can never be an end in itself.

There’s a reason this is number one.  Innovation creates markets.

There are hundreds of different fantasy roleplaying games; Dungeons & Dragons, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Middle-Earth Roleplaying, the Palladium RPG, etc but they all exist in the Fantasy RPG market. The Fantasy RPG market is over-saturated at this point and hasn’t grown significantly for some time.  The success of Paizo and Pathfinder has come at the expense of 4e D&D, for example; they aren’t creating new Fantasy roleplayers out of thin air. Why?  Because there isn’t anything fundamentally different about the experience each of them provides.  You could say they each innovate in different ways in that they may have more realistic combat or more intricate skill systems or more detailed settings but, guess what?  That’s not innovation.  Innovation is not designing a better Fantasy RPG with more or different bells and whistles.  Innovation is offering the player something they’ve never experienced before.

White Wolf’s greatest triumphs, for example, have come from their innovative games: they ignored the dominant Tolkien-based explore-fight-loot model and instead created a World of Darkness interested in modern-day horror and political intrigue.  The times they have branched out into different genres they have met with critical, but not commercial, success.  Why play Trinity when you already own Traveller or Star Wars?  Why play Aberrant when you already own Marvel Super Heroes or Heroes Unlimited?  Why Play Exalted when you already own D&D or MERP?  This isn’t to say that non-innovative games can’t be successful, but think about this:

Magic: The Gathering created the market for card-based games in 1993 that enabled Wizards of the Coast to eat TSR and the D&D gaming line whole by 1997.

That’s innovation.

2. Makes a product useful – A product is bought to be used. It has to satisfy certain criteria, not only functional, but also psychological and aesthetic. Good design emphasizes the usefulness of a product whilst disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it.

Its all very well creating a new experience, but if you don’t make the game playable, you might as well take your dice and go home.  Minimise the amount of crunch to make it easy to pick up and play.  Chess is a complicated game to master, but the basic rules are simple and can be summed up on a single sheet of paper.

Hell, minimise the fluff for the same reason.  The more you can simplify the initial user experience the more likely people will understand it.

Licensed properties have an easier time here as instead of having to explain the world you can point to a book or a film and say ‘read/watch that’.  The problem with licenses is that they tend to limit your audience to those people who were already fans of the original book, film or comic.  If the license has a lot of role-playing fans you’ll be okay, but it’s unlikely that the licensed game will ever be as popular as the original product.

You could go the ‘inspired by’ route, which is a convenient way to describe the game in a hurry.  Recent Kickstarter project School Daze asks if you remember high school as depicted in ‘Saved by the Bell, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Breakfast Club, or Brick’ and Fiasco is inspired by films like Fargo, Way of the Gun and Bad Santa.  This short hand can be a little disingenuous (Brick and Saved by the Bell, really?) but it imparts the flavour of the game in a succinct way.

Going back to White Wolf, the settings of Exalted and the Trinity Universe might be impressive, but having copious amounts of detail may actually be a barrier to entry in these cases – if you have to wade through 200 pages of background before you roll up a character it’s not something you can pick up and play.  While the World of Darkness has a rich mythology it can be easily described as our world, but shittier and with real monsters.  The clan system in Vampire: The Masquerade provides another short hand way of getting the players into the game faster – want to play a conflicted musician?  Try clan Toreador.  A loner naturalist? Gangrel.  A rambling madman?  Malkavian.

Remember you are not just competing with other pen & paper RPGs anymore!  If I can choose between playing World of Warcraft with my friends now or spending a couple of hours reading a game’s back-story and rules before creating a character and then sitting down with them, I know that I’m more likely to go with the online RPG because it’s more convenient.

3. Is aesthetic – The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because products are used every day and have an effect on people and their well-being. Only well-executed objects can be beautiful.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the game needs to be beautiful or feature full-colour artwork, but some consideration of how the game looks and feels is essential.

This could also relate to the simplicity and elegance of the rules.  Lumpley Games’ Dogs in the Vineyard has a wonderful set of rules that evoke the flavour of the wild west and the type of game that it wants to play by deploying a system of raises, folds and calls.  It’s evocative because it directly references something that is intimately tied in to the western genre, the poker game, without being a direct copy of it.

Dogs is also a lovely book physically.  It is in a comfortable form factor for reading and carrying about, being small in terms of dimension and page count.  It has only 12 pages of artwork, including the cover, but each is the same sparse style and each reinforces the theme and mood of the game.  The book’s layout is simple, clear and includes compelling stories that reinforce the mythology of the game.  Even though the book is detailed it has a sense of openness created by the wide page borders and line spacing.  It feels like it could be an artefact from the world it is trying to represent.

4. Makes a product understandable – It clarifies the product’s structure. Better still, it can make the product clearly express its function by making use of the user’s intuition. At best, it is self-explanatory.

Layout and structure should be clear, unless your design goal is to deliberately obfuscate and confuse the gamesmaster or players.

As well as bringing clarity, the layout and structure should also express the type of game you want to play.  That means putting the important and cool stuff in prominent places.  if your game has unique mechanics or an interesting setting, make sure that they are at least summarised within the first few pages of your book.

A problem with the White Wolf’s Aberrant is the main rulebook starts with nearly 100 pages of background material.  This leaves the reader with two impressions: You need to read this stuff to play the game and White Wolf’s background should be important to the gamesmaster’s campaign.  You could use Aberrant’s rules as a basis for your own superhero campaign setting, but the Aberrant back story is tied to the rules in not insignificant ways, particularly the source of Aberrant superpowers and Backgrounds.

The opposite is true for the 4th edition D&D Player’s Handbook, the rules are clearly laid out and lead gently from character creation, through powers and feats, to combat.  But there is no setting to guide you at all.  This is, of course, because D&D encourages many different settings and to give prominence to one in the main rulebook would be to the detriment of all the others.  But consider a first-time player, someone who has entered Barnes & Noble and picks up a copy of the Player’s Handbook.  What they see is a collection of tables, numbers and rules that don’t tell them what it’s like to be a fighter: your hand slick with your enemy’s blood, clad in Starmetal, clutching the Barbed Blade of Hubris and hearing the lamentation of their women.

5. Is unobtrusive – Products fulfilling a purpose are like tools. They are neither decorative objects nor works of art. Their design should therefore be both neutral and restrained, to leave room for the user’s self-expression.

A friend of mine was running a Warhammer FRP game and the players were trying to get from one part of a village being attacked by chaos hordes to another without attracting any attention to themselves.  They reached a high wall surrounding a church and the GM asked them to make a Scale Sheer Surface roll.  Being inexperienced adventurers, they failed, and kept on failing until they decided it was easier to attack the rampaging beasts of Nurgle than get over the damn wall.

Was this fun for the players?  Not really.  It wasn’t a tense moment where getting over the wall was life-or-death; they eventually found an alternative route and play continued.  Was it fun for the GM?  Almost certainly not, he was trapped as much as they were.  The problem he faced was once you’ve set a difficulty for a task, it’s hard to fudge it in the player’s favour after the fact or back down from the initial set up without losing authority.

Who’s at fault here?  I believe the system has to shoulder some of the blame, as it encourages you to make rolls for uninteresting things by having a skill to roll against.  Is scaling a sheer surface interesting enough to warrant its own skill?  Unless you’re being attacked by something, it’s unlikely that you’ll fail or that the act of climbing will create enough tension for it to be interesting in and of itself.  You could make combat more difficult, and make falling a consequence of missing or botching a roll, but that raises the stakes of the scene and adds to the drama rather than detracts from the session’s flow.

So, why bother creating rules to climb over walls if the only consequence of failing is that you don’t get to climb over that wall?  You could say ‘Why bother creating rules to arbitrate combat if the only consequence of failing is that you fail in combat?’ but this is a little disingenuous – combat encounters give players interesting choices to make and failing in the encounter will have bigger consequences than simply not winning.  There is a growing movement of games that tell the gamesmaster to ‘say yes or roll the dice’, Diaspora by VSCA Publishing and Dogs in the Vineyard for example.  In situations were there is little at stake, the GM should simply say yes.

If the main focus of your game is combat, then outside of combat, could you let the players do what they want?  If you put a mechanical arbitration system into your game it should be fun, not just a barrier to doing what you want to do.  If the players want to do something interesting then you need some way of dealing with it, but if it’s just climbing over a wall, who cares?

Should the system attempt to model or arbitrate the most important aspect of the game?  A game like Call of Cthulhu, for example, could really do with a good system for researching and uncovering knowledge, as that is one of the primary activities of Investigators.  The current method works but its not exactly compelling, is it?  I haven’t played the Gumshoe powered Trail of Cthulhu, but all indications are that this is exactly what this spinoff does.

In essence, the system should not get in the way of having a good time.

6. Is honest – It does not make a product more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept.

Reward behaviour that you want to see.  D&D is clear about the behaviour it wants to see: you fight for experience and loot.  Skill challenges are rewarded, but not as much as combat is, so they seem less than optimal ways to get experience and items.  Luckily for D&D, combat is fun in and of itself, so it’s a win-win situation for player and gamesmaster.

Looking at the reward/experience systems of games gives you an insight into the type of game the designers had in mind when designing it.  Call of Cthulhu and Cyberpunk reward players for using skills, White Wolf games reward roleplaying your character well and Fate rewards players that go looking for trouble.

I don’t know if the designers of Cyberpunk added the life path section to character creation before or after they’d finalised how deadly combat was, but it does make character creation interesting and fun.  It’s a smart move as players aren’t discouraged from taking risks in combat by a clunky and painful character creation process.  Having said that I once spent a morning when I was a kid rolling up eight characters in quick succession, all taken down by rogue headshots, that wasn’t much fun.  I think I carried on with a dim conviction that I wasn’t going to be beaten by dumb luck.  It turns out that, yes, I was.

So clearly there are two ways to reward the behaviour you want to see – make it pay or make it fun.  Good games will do both.

7. Is long-lasting – It avoids being fashionable and therefore never appears antiquated. Unlike fashionable design, it lasts many years – even in today’s throwaway society.

This is the point where I argue that licensed games are doomed to fail.

To be sure they make money if they’re brought out in a timely fashion, but can you think of any that have stood the test of time as good games in their own right?  The obvious answer is Call of Cthulhu, but I’m not sure that’s your typical licensed game.

Any others?  The success of games like TMNT, the Ghostbusters RPG, Star Wars and Star Trek are heavily dependent on the popularity of the licence.  If the licence falls foul of fashion then no matter how good your game is, people just won’t play it.  Taking a look at the computer MMO market is instructive here, Lord of the Rings is a reasonably successful MMO, but is certainly not a market leader, despite the health of the licence.  The Matrix Online, once heralded as the next big thing in MMOs thanks to the all conquering Matrix licence crumbled and disappeared when interest waned in the films.  There are so many factors out of your control that once you’ve hitched your wagon to a licence that it seems inevitable that unless it’s an evergreen, like Star Wars or CoC, which are already taken, you will struggle when the going gets tough.

8. Is thorough down to the last detail – Nothing must be arbitrary or left to chance. Care and accuracy in the design process show respect towards the consumer.

You could read this as a call to model every possible outcome through dice rolls or card reveals.  I think, this would be a mistake.  As previously discussed, rolling to see if you can catch a trout, or repair a shield buckle or cook a stew aren’t necessarily entertaining if you’re playing D&D.  They are certainly necessary and need to be entertaining if you’re making a game about fishing, repairing or cooking.

Exalted is a game about conflict on all sorts of scales and every theatre.  It attempts to model every possible way these conflicts could play out, be it through debate, personal combat, skirmish warfare or state and continental diplomacy.  While it achieves the goal of making sure important actions/interactions are modelled, it is debatable if they are always entertaining.  The charm system is heavily skewed towards personal combat, so the other interactions are less interesting as there are fewer options for players.

A different example of thorough design is Fiasco.  Every meaningful interaction during play is settled mechanically; how each scene plays out and what happens to the players at the end of the acts is settled through selection or rolling of dice.  The beauty of Fiasco is that the only random element is the roll at the end of each act, every other mechanical interaction is still dictated by a choice of the players; choose to set up the scene or resolve it, choose a good or a bad resolution.

I’m thinking now about an Exalted playset for Fiasco…

9. Is environmentally friendly – Design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment. It conserves resources and minimizes physical and visual pollution throughout the lifecycle of the product.

This is a tough one to make fit, but I’d suggest that you make positive games.  What I mean by that is you should make games that, at the very least, aren’t derogatory, anti-social or encourage criminal behaviour.  It’s a fine line, but take the example of Cyberpunk 2020.  Cyberpunk is about rampant capitalism and the destruction of the human spirit in the face of technology.  It’s a depressing concept, but it’s also a warning.  It can, of course, be played as something that glorifies criminal activity.  You can skirt the morally ambiguous line playing mercenary street gangs, but the game itself doesn’t reward you for doing so and has a brutal combat system that kills players more often than not if they do get into combat.

It’s a bit of a joke around our table that if a system doesn’t have a Humanity stat, like Vampire, we feel we have no obligation to be nice, decent people when we play.  That aside, White Wolf show their talent for game design by including the Humanity/Path/Road system.  Not because it tells you how you should play, but because it gives your choice consequence.  The game is designed from the ground up to be an exploration of humanity so it makes sense that there is some measure of a character’s moral rectitude and a mechanism for it to be changed.

It also wouldn’t be a bad thing to offer environmentally friendly products in terms of their production and dissemination.  Specify paper that meets sustainable or recycled standards for print versions or offer an electronic version to reduce your environmental impact.

10. Is as little design as possible – Less, but better – because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity.

If it’s not important, chuck it out.  Don’t set out to create a 400 page epic.  And if you do get to 400 pages take a long hard look at what you’ve got and ask yourself what’s important and what could be edited down without making the game less fun.

And, as brevity is the soul of wit, and I’ve already been typing for an age now, I shall depart.  Let me know what you think, either here or on Google+.

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The Laundry RPG

In order to read this review you must have signed and dated the 137/22b Review and Records Form, sought a counter-signature from a delegated authority determined by your department, and passed the relevant paperwork to Marcia in Human Resources for processing. 

I’ll wait, don’t worry about it.

No, you need the other form, the 137/22B.  It was updated last week, didn’t you get the email?  Your laptop was eaten by a parasitic, inter-dimensional virus?  Sounds like you already have the requisite field experience, perhaps I should just begin.

The Laundry is based on the science-fiction spy series of the same name written by Charles Stross.  Starting with The Atrocity Archive, Stross has chronicled a world not too dissimilar to our own, with the small difference that vast, alien chthonic gods from alternate dimensions are trying to eat our souls.  Set in the UK it lampoons the bureaucratic nightmare of the civil service through the character and adventures of Bob Howard, a hapless IT technician.  Howard works for The Laundry, a quasi-mystical secret service tasked with defending the realm from the aforementioned hideous beasties and filling in any paperwork associated with aforementioned defending of the realm.

The strength of The Laundry, as a series and as a game, is the diverse and playful setting.  The CERN research centre isn’t flinging tiny elementary particles at each other, for example, it’s true purpose is a sacrificial-goat-fuelled summoning grid and demonic computational engine.  Oh yes, and if CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN ever comes to pass it’ll be a defence bunker for a few thousand people, if that many survive.  The ever present Elder God Apocalypse Event generally only seems a little less inviting than the Auditing Commision inquiry if you overspend on your mission budget, however.  It seems, from a GM’s point of view, that one of the difficulties in running the game would be managing the levels of horror and bureaucracy without falling into a pastiche or spoof of either.

The world of The Laundry is heavily influenced by Lovecraft and the Cthulhu mythos, of course, but it is also heavily indebted to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, the spy fiction of Len Deighton and Ian Fleming, and the classic treatise by the International Standards Organisation, Environmental Management Systems – Requirements with Guidance For Use or to give it it’s snappy title – ISO 14001:2004.  If you’ve played Paranoia you’ll also get shades of that game’s, well, paranoia, security clearances and the idea that technology is not always the most effective answer to every problem.

The Lovecraft influence has also spilled over into the Game’s system, which is a modified version of the Basic Roleplaying System from Chaosium, most prominently featured in Call of Cthulhu.  The majority of it is intact, with characteristics and skills being basically the same, but there are a few additions.  Players have to choose a Personality Type, a Profession and their Assignment within the Laundry.  Each stage allows you to distribute points to your skills based on that selection; a bruiser personality has the opportunity to put skill points in Brawl whereas a Thinker doesn’t.  What this means is that all of the faults of the Basic Roleplaying System are largely intact too, so if you find the system restrictive, clunky or without enough crunch, then you may be disappointed.

The magic system has been changed rather dramatically, The Laundry setting states that the 20th century’s greatest magician was Alan Turing; computers are used to calculate magical spells and tinker with the fabric of Space-Time.  In this age of Android and iPhones there are even magic spell apps, designed to be used on specially jailbroken devices, that cast minor cantrips.  You can use mp3 players and some speakers in a ritual instead of a group of chanters or a set of lasers to create a pentacle if you are so inclined.  Magic can still be cast without technological trappings, but it can be slower and is usually more dangerous.

Along with large amounts of flavour text from the novels and an expansive background section, there are three missions to get you started:  Going Down to Dunwich, A Footnote and The Greys.  The first mission describes a military facility at Dunwich, a Norfolk village erased from the map in the 1940’s by the UK government, and is designed as an introductory adventure to the setting.  The players are cast as new recruits to the Laundry who are sent to Dunwich as part of their initial training.  As might be expected there is a twist, but one that I won’t spoil here.  It is an effective adventure, with plenty of back-doors and GM advice based on the playtesters responses, and does embed the setting firmly in modern Britain.

While the first mission references ‘The Dunwich Horror’ directly, it is actually the second mission, A Footnote, that takes some of the plot of that short story as its inspiration.  The final mission, The Greys, touches on themes of dementia, demonic possession and mistaken identity.  All in all the three missions provide a good introduction to the setting and concepts that are unique to The Laundry, but ultimately, your mileage may vary depending on the type of games your group likes to play. 

The layout is effective, or at least it would be if I was using a print copy of the book.  One of the difficulties of using a pdf is the insistence on a two-column layout for all but a few paragraphs.  I realise that The Laundry is not alone in this, but I do hope that, as more games offer a pdf version or go straight to pdf, that this practice is phased out as you find yourself going backwards and forwards interminably to get from one page to the next.  The artwork is also effective, if limited, being mostly quarter or half page black & white images of various horrific creatures or locations.  It is a bit of a shame that there aren’t more splash pages, as there are some great pieces of art that seem squashed to fit.

I think the key test of licensed games is not whether they would just satisfy a reader of the original material, but whether they would also be interesting and deep enough to play if you hadn’t read any of the source material before picking the game up.  In this, The Laundry succeeds admirably.  There is so much information here that a group would have no problem picking up the feel of the game from the flavour text and system.  While it is derivative of Call of Cthulhu I don’t think The Laundry ever feels like a cheap and quick knock-off or parody.  The balance between humour and horror hits more often than it misses and the references to Cthulhu, Lovecraft and the Elder Gods add to, rather than detract from, the overall Cthulhu Mythos.

Perhaps I am biased, I live in the UK and work with policies, procedures, standards and 137/22B forms all day.  Perhaps I get all the jokes and references that a roleplaying gamer from Little Rock, Arkansas may not get.  Perhaps I should end this review with a caveat – not for consumption outside the UK?  I don’t believe that for a second though.  If you can play an Elven warrior born in the slums of Neverwinter you can play an IT technician bevearing away in The Laundry.

Exalted – Post D&D RPG

In 2001, White Wolf was enjoying a renaissance, it had released revised editions of the World of Darkness rulebooks and looked set to challenge its main competitor, Wizards of the Coast, when they announced a fantasy RPG to rival Dungeons & Dragons. Exalted was released with great fanfare as a prequel to the World of Darkness, set in the ancient Age of Sorrows. The game eschewed the Tolkien milieu that had been the basis for a great chunk of modern fantasy literature and took inspiration from ancient myth and legend, Edwardian high fantasy, and modern manga and anime. Despite the mixed pedigree, the differing influences were woven together with no little skill to produce a complex and original world that felt new and exciting.

Exalted* uses a heavily modified version of the in-house White Wolf Storyteller System. The key differentiator from, for example, Vampire: The Masquerade is that instead of a system of disciplines that grants a unique power for each level you purchase, Exalted allows you to buy any Charm you like, as long as you meet the pre-requisites, which would be based on the players attributes, abilities and other charms. Each charm allows players to supplement or replace an action with a super-power or to perform an action many times after spending essence. There is a subset of charms, called Excellencies, that allow the player to add dice, successes or a re-roll to an action. Usually you can only activate one charm a turn, but after practice and spending experience, charms can be put in special combinations called combos, that allow the use of two or more charms on the same action. For example, you can use an action adding charm with a dice adding charm so that every extra action can be supplemented with extra dice. This simulates the increasing power of Exalted against mortals pretty well, in that Exalted quickly outclass mortals in almost every respect if the player is smart during character creation.

While the general Storyteller System is easy to explain, in practice it can get quite complicated. Combat in Exalted is painful. For each action the player wants to make there is a ten-step method for resolution**. At each step the player has to roll dice or add/subtract successes so each action could take a few minutes to resolve. This isn’t a big problem when only a handful of combatants are involved, but once you add a few extra action charms and a couple of extra bodies, things can get slow… very, very slow.

The Mass Combat system alleviates some of the problems that come from adding a lot of bodies, but it is only useful when you reach a certain size of encounter. One character takes the role of a General and uses his abilities to attack the opposing forces, who are divided up in to units. The General’s own abilities are enhanced by the unit he is with. This means that if a General is within a unit of Archers, he adds a number of successes and damage dice to his rolls when making ranged attacks based on the units potency. Other players can be nominated as Heroes or Sorcerers who can make melee or ranged attacks respectively for the General if they are better at that sort of thing. It’s a neat idea that really plays up the heroic aspects of Exalted combat and makes the General the focus of the conflict. It does, however, have the effect of sidelining players that aren’t Generals, Sorcerers or Heroes, as there is a limit to the number of special characters in a unit. Those without a role either have to act as Solo character, which can be risky, or hide within the ranks of another unit and effectively not take part in the conflict.

I think we can all agree that combat needs rules of some kind to determine an outcome, but determining the outcome of social conflict through dice rolls is still a relatively novel idea. In Exalted, social combat plays out almost exactly like traditional combat but with the names changed – instead of rolling join battle, Exalted jargon for initiative, you roll join debate; instead of aiming, you monologue or study. While this means that social interaction can be played out between those with charms equitably, it does mean that it leaves little room for role-playing. Even if a player makes a rousing speech that the entire group agrees is awesome, they can only receive a three-die bonus to the roll. A starting character with a social first excellency can easily beat that bonus with a small expenditure of essence. This is the equivalent of Obi-Wan Kenobi waving his hands and stating ‘these aren’t the droids you’re looking for.’ While it works from a simulationist point of view, in that it is clear who won and is based on the relative strengths of the combatants, it doesn’t necessarily feel fair to more narrativist players.

Pop quiz, and show your working, what’s the probability that a player will roll at least six successes with 10 dice? Okay, I’ll start with an easy one, what’s the probability that a player will roll at least two successes on three dice?*** Okay, I’ll start again, why do I need to know how probable things are, as a player or as a GM? As a GM I like to know how difficult something will be for a player in order to make it challenging enough for it to be exciting but not so difficult that it’s impossible. If I don’t have to worry about the mechanical challenge, it gives me time to think of other interesting and exciting things that could be going on in a scene. As a player I’d like to know the comparative worth of adding one or two dice to my dice pool; my choice of how much essence to spend boosting my roll or which charm to use is less meaningful if I don’t have adequate knowledge about the potential consequences.

While it is a good rule of thumb that you need about twice as many dice as successes required to have a 50% chance of success, that doesn’t help if you want to use more or fewer dice as it is extremely difficult to know how much of an impact adding or subtracting dice will have without using advanced statistical modelling or brute force calculation. If you’re trying to save essence for a later encounter, how much can you reasonably get away with not spending and still have a good chance of success? In games like D&D and Call of Cthulhu you have a very clear idea before you roll as to your chance of success, so you can make more meaningful decisions about your actions.

By now I’ve probably lost about half of you. What type of boring nerd wants to know this? In the heat of battle, with stunts and descriptive storytelling, who cares about the probability that you’ll hit that dude with that sword? You’re probably right, players are less likely to care about this sort of thing, but as a storyteller, I think it is important to have at least a good understanding of the difficulty of the encounters you’re building. Herein lies my second problem. What is a challenging difficulty for a player who can roll between 10 and 20 dice on a given action?

If you have players who love to min-max their characters, Exalted is great, and it’s a fun game in itself to determine what gives you the ultimate build in a particular skill/sphere. But, if you haven’t got a group of players who want to do that, or worse you have a mixture of power-gamers and normal players, how can you balance encounters? One character will have five ten-die attacks that can hit for 14 dice of damage, a Defence Value of 9 (meaning you require nine success to hit them) and a soak of 13 (Meaning you get rid of 13 damage, to a minimum of one), the other has one 6-die attack that can hit for 5 dice of damage, a Defence Value of 5 and a soak of 4. If you make it challenging for the first character, there’s a very real chance you’ll kill the second, and if you make it challenging for the second, you risk killing the former with boredom. Balancing encounters is made all the more difficult because there is a staggering lack of a decent bestiary or ‘monster manual’ to throw at players.

The argument follows that the GM should encourage players to take combat skills to ensure they reach a minimum level, but that involves taking choice out of the players hands and reducing the number of interesting decisions they can make about their character. The rulebook recommends that players should all take at least one level of Ox-Body Technique, a power that increases the amount of damage that can be taken, why not just make it a standard power and reduce the number of options available?

Given the dizzying number of charm choices, and the way that the castes have been designed, players are more inclined to roll up characters that excel in different roles. But, instead of the traditional fighter, mage, cleric, thief set, Exalted is geared around players dominating particular spheres, so you could have a character that is a combat monster, a social monster or a crafting monster. Each of these roles complements the other in general, but in specific situations, there is little opportunity for synergy. What effect can a social or crafting character have in combat situations? What does a combat monster do in a social situation? While they may be able to make minimal contributions, a bruiser might be able to intimidate an underling, they are relegated to less than secondary roles during those encounters. While the players can make contributions before the event, social characters can try to persuade the group to lay down their arms or crafters can create better weapons, once the fighting starts they are left with little to do. Again, the argument would be that players should be encouraged to create rounded characters, but this just means that they end up being uninteresting clones of each other.

Perhaps you should ignore the rules you don’t like and play Exalted a bit more loosely? Concentrate on the story and it’ll all work out, right? The problem with this is that the players abilities are so closely tied to systemic enhancements it is difficult to describe player powers in any other way. Because the game is built around Exalted characters who are defined by their charms to a great extent, removing the ability to use those charms makes it impossible to play an Exalted character! There are charms for each step of the combat sequence, so if I take out certain steps to simplify combat I’m potentially hobbling someone’s character. If I try to ignore the rules for social combat I have to judge myself whether or not a player can influence an NPC. There is always the temptation to rig the encounter, depending on how the encounter is ‘supposed’ to go, whereas the more fair solution is to let the dice fall where they may.

The other problem with simplification in favour of quick and easy gameplay is that the Exalted world has been designed from the ground up with the idea that the Exalted have the power to shape and define Creation. Once you start chipping away at the edges you start removing some of the most interesting and fun narrative ideas in the system. If I say that Sidereal martial arts are too complicated and difficult to manage and get rid of them, well, then I’ve taken away one of the defining traits of the Sidereal Exalted. It’s one of the great successes of Exalted that every aspect of Creation can be influenced by the player characters, and the system is detailed enough that those interactions are fairly arbitrated. The detail in Exalted, it’s greatest strength from a storytelling point of view, make it complicated and difficult to run. Removing or altering elements to make it more manageable actually makes the setting less interesting at the same time. If you want your character to have interesting and unique charms, then you need a certain level of detail to ensure that not every charm is essentially ‘does x damage and has minor side-effect’.

Exalted is roleplaying without the training wheels, turned up to 11. It is no wonder that White Wolf challenged players to ‘Graduate’ their game from D&D, as Exalted is orders of magnitude more complicated to play than the offering from Wizards of the Coast. Whereas D&D has a reputation for complexity it is relatively easy to play, especially 3.5 and 4.0, and only character creation is moderately difficult, Exalted is exactly the opposite, character creation is a breeze, but resolving anything can be soul-crushingly time consuming. For those willing to put the effort in to learn the system, this time is reduced enormously, but it is a very steep learning curve.

*I’m largely talking about 2nd Edition throughout.
** This can go up to 16 steps if a counter-attack is involved.
*** It’s 0.46.

Ninten-woes

I bet you think Nintendo made a ton of money from the Wii and DS?  Their turnover since 2006 has been exceptional, but you’d be surprised at the relatively small amount of profit they made, considering the boatloads of cash spent by folk on the little black and white boxes of motion controlled joy.  In fact, based on last years performance, and this years interim results, Nintendo could be in for a rocky few years ahead.  So why are they in trouble now?

Back in 2003/4*, Nintendo wasn’t looking great.  Their flagship products were either stillborn, the Gamecube, or were on their last legs, the Gameboy.  In a prescient opening to the 2004 Nintendo financial report, Saturo Iwata said the following:

‘Unfortunately, in the current market, increasing numbers of casual gamers are not picking up controllers because games created using the old formula for success are no longer as appealing as they once were. Increasingly complex games with intricate game controls, while popular with avid game enthusiasts, are not what the majority of the game playing public is seeking. Most players are not looking for games that require them to invest large amounts of time and energy, instead most want games they can enjoy periodically, when there’s a free moment in their day.

In Japan, the software market has been shrinking for the past few years and the North American market, which used to experience significant growth year after year, is seeing a slowing of that trend. Under such circumstances, a revolutionary approach to video game creation is required more than ever.

Currently, the game play skills of avid gamers far surpass those of novice players. Led by Nintendo, the industry needs to present a style of play that levels the playing field, so players of all skill levels can enjoy video games. In order to expand the market, we need to place everybody back at the same starting point.’

It was easy to dispute this viewpoint at the time, Nintendo were flagging behind Sony and Microsoft in the sixth console generation, and hadn’t grown as a company for about six years.

A product called the Nintendo DS was released in November ’04 in the US, and it wasn’t clear that it was going to be the monster smash it became, largely because it looked like it had been designed in the soviet bloc.  The DS only sold 5 million units in 2004/5, the Gameboy Advance sold 15 million in the same year, and the Gamecube sold less than the DS.  Sales were flat and profits were falling.  Dire predictions about the future of Nintendo, comparing them to Sega and suggesting they’d be better off as a software only publishing house, were abound.  2005/6 was little better, while DS sales picked up slightly, GBA sales halved, it was as if there was a limit to the number of handheld sales of around 20 million a year.

It was then that Nintendo revealed the Wii.  It was largely rejected by the mainstream gaming press as a pile of old rubbish (much grist was generated by looking at its internal hardware and comparing it to the much more powerful Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 consoles which it was supposed to be competing against).  But, if the gaming press had been paying attention, Nintendo were trying to do something else, they were trying to halt the stagnation of the gaming market.  The Wii had two significant advantages over its main rivals, it was cheap, as it used relatively inexpensive hardware and eschewed HD fidelity, and it was great for playing in groups.  Its no surprise that the Wii sells out at Christmas, what other system was so heavily geared towards party and family games?

To say that the Wii was a success is an understatement.  It is now one of the most successful consoles of all time, selling over 85 million units since launch.  After a redesign, the Nintendo DS has sold nearly 150 million units which makes it the most successful handheld console ever.  So why do I think that Nintendo are in trouble?

While Nintendo have sold a lot of consoles, they have also had to spend a tremendous amount of money designing and buying hardware, building or renting facilities to manufacture and assemble units, on warehousing, distribution and marketing and on the salaries of all the new staff they’ve had to employ to keep up with demand.  The success of Nintendo at this time is unprecedented in their history, and they’ve gone from manufacturing around 20 million handheld and home consoles a year to nearly 60 million in 2008/9.  The tales of shortages at Christmas might be exaggerated, but I wouldn’t say they are entirely unjustifiable.

So revenue is up, but costs are also up.  Take a look at the following graph and you’ll see what I mean:

The spike in revenue is striking, but the bottom line, the net profit, the profit after the cost of all of Nintendo operations is deducted, doesn’t have quite the same dramatic shape.  In 2008/9 Nintendo’s revenue was up 260% but it’s profits were only up by 180%.  In an ideal world you’d want those figures to be pretty much the same, but because of the reasons above, they’re never going to be.  It’s not even a major problem, until the sales start dropping off.

Ah.  Now we’ve got a problem.  Nintendo’s revenue has been dropping off a cliff for the past few years and net income is back to pre-Wii and DS levels.  So even though Nintendo are turning over more than twice as much money as they were in 2004/5 (1,014 Billion JPY vs 508 Billion JPY), their profit levels are actually worse than 2004/5 (77.6 Billion JPY vs 98.4 Billion JPY).  You would normally expect to see profit increase relative to revenue, all other things being equal, as products are made more cheaply or more effectively and companies engineer out expense by replacing expensive hardware with less costly alternatives, but because the Wii was already a streamlined product at launch, it must have proved difficult to take out more cost.  It could be that it is actually becoming more expensive to make the Wii, as older chips are no longer mass-produced for other non-Nintendo products, reducing the significant economies of scale in chip production.

The other explanation for the reduced profits is the increased budget required to launch a new console.  We can see in 2003/4 Nintendo’s net profit takes a nose dive, before the release of the DS, so perhaps the costs of the Wii U and 3DS are having a significant impact.  What if this is just a blip and Nintendo are going to bounce back to their Wii/DS revenue of 2008/9 in the next few years?

The stars aligned when the DS and Wii both turned out to be massively successful.  There hasn’t been a better time to be at Nintendo than the past few years, as the cycles of their handheld and home console popularity converged like a perfect storm.  But, while this amounted to a massive boom, the waning popularity of both products at the same time means that both of their next projects had better be at least successful on their own terms. 

Looking at the 3DS, its not had the greatest of starts.  It sold 3.6 million units in its first six months, which is below the 4 million Nintendo forecast, but still higher than the DS sold in its first six months.  The problem is that Nintendo sold 7 million less hand held consoles than they did the year before.  The issues the 3DS has with player nausea, the difficulty of advertising a 3D product in 2D media, and lack of killer titles, mean that it isn’t assured of the same level of success as the DS.  That’s not a problem as long as the Wii U works out.  But I don’t think the Wii U is going to be a success, and it goes back to Saturo Iwata and the 2003/4 financial report. 

For all of the fuss about hardcore and casual gamers, there is one thing that is undeniable, Nintendo did grow the market for video games, for everyone.  That’s the reason for Sony’s Playstation Move and Microsoft’s Kinect, they saw massive amounts of cash to be had and ‘innovated’ in that direction.  Nintendo have effectively levelled the market, but Sony and Microsoft have now joined them in the casual market.  It may be cheaper to buy a Wii U than an XBox360 + Kinetic or a Playstation 3 + Move, but the essential Wii U package isn’t different enough to make people want to buy an additional console or upgrade from the Wii.

This is because the Wii U will not expand the market the way the Wii did, and its the same reason the 3DS won’t expand the market like the DS did.  The Wii U is not innovating in the right direction.  The unique selling point of the Wii was that you could play the Wii with your family on a standard definition telly.  The unique selling point of the Wii U, compared to everything else available, is that you can play on the controller when the telly is being used by someone else.  It is essentially changing the experience from a group activity to a single player activity.  It is a regressive move, not innovative.

I would love to be surprised by the success of the 3DS and the Wii U, as Nintendo is an innovative company, but I remain pessimistic.

* Dates are all based on Nintendo’s Financial year which run April to March.

World of Warcraft Anxiety

I think I should get this off my chest. I am a casual player of World of Warcraft. I have a full-time job, a fiancee, I roleplay with my friends and I sing a bit too. I love videogaming, but it is only one part of my life, so I try to moderate my time spent sat in front of a monitor. I’m not sure whether or not I’ve had a typical World of Warcraft experience, but I do think I fit the typical casual mmo-gamer niche that everyone is talking about. A little history might help here.

I started playing World of Warcraft in November 2006. I spent years levelling my first characters and I had an absolute blast without stepping foot in a dungeon, raid or battleground. I didn’t hit a level cap until Wrath of the Lich King, December 2009 in fact. This is primarily because I didn’t know what I was doing. Because I rarely interacted with other players, as everyone else seemed intent on hitting the level cap as soon as possible, I had time to explore every area and fight every monster. I think one reason I fell in love with Warcraft was the size of the place. I once tried swimming around Kalimdor with a level 25 character. I managed to swim from Darkshore to Azshara before a passing lobster cut me to ribbons, but I didn’t care, it felt awesome to be somewhere new, exciting and off-limits.

While I was a little anxious, the excitement of the new and the relatively small penalty for failure meant that I spent a very long time levelling and exploring and never really got bored. Sadly, even with the new continent, I will never feel that rush of excitement as I come to a new area, even with Cataclysm, as I know too much now for levelling to be truly challenging. It can still be fun, but I’m not excited by it any more.

When I finally hit the level cap in Wrath, I jumped into dungeons, heroics and all that with gusto. I quickly learnt the ropes and became competent enough to stay out of the fire and hit the buttons in the order required to produce adequate damage. I figured out how to gem and enchant gear to maximise my numbers, got into a small guild and started running raid content. While we never troubled with heroics modes, we had a great time hammering our heads against the wall because we did advance, no matter how slowly. I dabbled with healing and tanking, the former more successfully than the latter, and enjoyed myself all the same. I started to read Warcraft sites and forums to make sure I wasn’t doing it all wrong.

I don’t think that in my four years of playing WoW up to the release of Cataclysm I’d experienced true anxiety or boredom. I’d played WoW the way I wanted to play it, had fun and all the time I was trying new and interesting content, I was feeling Flow. Flow is an interesting concept that I think is really important in videogames. It’s the feeling you get when you are neither anxious nor bored but feel challenged and in control of your situation. You might get it when you’re on a perfect-win streak in Tekken or if you’re in the middle of a speed run in Mirror’s Edge; you’re doing something difficult, not impossible, and you’re nailing it. Obviously, Flow is based on your own perception of difficulty and ability, so I wouldn’t claim that any of the content I was doing was difficult at all to the average player.

An interesting side-effect of my research is my increasing awareness of the WoW meta-game – optimisation of gear done via spreadsheet or website, strategy guides and theorycrafting. It was intruding slightly, but because I wasn’t a guild or raid leader and strategies would be talked through during the raid, I never really paid that much mind to it. I could read up on strategies, and frequently did, but it wasn’t strictly speaking necessary for day to day play. You could easily take part in heroic dungeons and battlegrounds without checking Wowhead for example.

The release of Cataclysm changed all that. What makes Cataclysm interesting is the schizophrenic way it caters to casual players in one way, by introducing time saving devices in-game (LFD, Heirlooms, ‘Welfare’ Epics) while upping the meta-game requirements and the amount of time required to complete group content.

The WoW meta-game has become intrusive. Evidence that it is impossible to play the game without strategy guides is the inclusion of them as standard in the form of the dungeon journal. I might agree that heroics and raids should be difficult if it weren’t for the fact that since the release of Cataclysm there is very little content that isn’t heroic dungeon or raid related. In fact if you take away the heroic only dungeons casual level 85’s have a handful of Tol Barad and Firelands daily quests, four non-heroic dungeons and a few non-repeatable questlines to play through.

You might be asking yourself, if you’re so interested in heroic content, why don’t you read up on the tactics and get stuck in? If only it were that simple. There are two points here, firstly, the finding, reading and understanding of the tactics for the heroic bosses in Cataclysm is not trivial. There were 42 bosses at launch with unique tactics for each. As the LFD is random, you had to know all the tactics before queuing or risk not knowing the one you finally end up in. Secondly, the number of bosses in each dungeon on average increased. This with the increased difficulty means that the potential amount of time spent in dungeons also increased significantly. Even if you have read up on the tactics and prepared yourself for a long run, you could find yourself in a group with people who haven’t, increasing the chances that you’ll be in one dungeon all night.

Well, I did read all the guides, made a few notes of my own and spent a good few weeks battering my head against the wall of heroic dungeons. I battled through the gear barrier just in time for 4.2 and the introduction of Zul’Aman and Zul’Gurub, and I don’t think I’ve been quite so disheartened. While the potential number of bosses has decreased, as you can queue for only ZA and ZG, the time requirement in the dungeon is much higher because of the increased difficulty, the lack of preparation by players and the number of bosses. I’ve lost count of the number of times the group has been disbanded because of wipes and the lack of friendliness is really appalling. The first time I stepped into Zul’Aman I didn’t meet the DPS requirements the tank felt necessary to continue ON THE FIRST TRASH PACK! Never mind my gear or experience, I wasn’t good enough. Sheepishly, I left the group…

Now whenever I go into a heroic dungeon I have this gnawing anxiety eating away at me. Even when I’m doing well I have this fear that we won’t finish the run or it will take another hour to clear because someone will die once and they’ll be kicked. People don’t even have to wipe the group to be labelled idiots they just have to screw up a little. Surely it’s quicker to explain a strategy to someone who doesn’t know than to kick and re-queue?

Where once you might pick yourself up and try again, now you’ll be verbally abused and vote-kicked out. When you complete a heroic dungeon now it’s not the positive feeling of flow you’re getting, it’s a feeling of relief.

You’re probably thinking again ‘if you don’t like it, don’t play it, it’s your choice.’ You’re right, of course, I don’t have to get involved with WoW. At the very least I don’t have to take part in any of the heroic content. But I do wonder if the reason WoW subscriber numbers are declining is a combination of the increased difficulty, rise of the meta-game and the negative atmosphere present in dungeons, raids and battlegrounds. There’s a whole lot of negative reinforcement going on at each of these points, forums and blogs are full of trash-talk, braggadocio and flaming, so you can’t help but bump into reasons not to even attempt more challenging content.

In Time

The great question that drives Sci-Fi literature is what if?  In Time posits the scenario that it is possible to arrest a person’s physical deterioration in the prime of their life at 25.  The only downside is that Time, not money, becomes the global currency.  Everyone is gifted a single year at birth, which starts to run down the moment the individual reaches twenty-five, and can get more Time by working.  To keep track of your remaining Time, a subcutaneous green LED is installed in your arm, a handy torch in times of need but a lousy way of conspicuously showboating your wealth.

What if you could live forever?

Time as a currency is a great concept, and the film tries to explore what that would mean for the people living in that type of world.  The bits that work in this film are those examining this conceit, the idea that people are now explicitly working to live is heavy-handed but effective and the global cabal of super-rich immortals managing the system is intriguing.

One of the great joys of any sci-fi film is to see how the world has been altered from our own and trying to figure out the reasons for those alterations.  If you can see how the filmmaker’s choices flow from the ‘What If’ then the film is halfway there.  Problems arise when the choices don’t appear to be obviously related to the central premise or directly contradict what reasonable viewer might expect in the circumstances.  As I watched In Time I started thinking about the choices made by the filmmakers and came up with a few questions about the world itself.  I think in the main the world of the film behaves consistently, but I just think it is consistently incorrect in its basic premises of what a Time based economic future world would look like.

Where are the mobile phones?  There are a bunch of times in this film when using a mobile phone would save countless lives.  Where have they all gone?  The conceit that a minute of talk time would cost not just a minute of your life but also an additional minute to pay for the call is pretty funny and dark.  It would destroy the tension in the film though, so mobile phones have uninvented in the In Time universe.  The Internet also appears to be completely absent from this world too, but that’s not a major plot point….

Why are some time transactions done wirelessly and some require physical contact?  Why store Time in vaults?  It’s shown that individuals can easily wire Time from one location to another, so why would you need to store Time physically?  And if you can wire Time electronically, why can’t you wire from one individual to another?  The Time system employs contactless technology, why isn’t it possible to control Time via a mobile network?  It would be easier to control the masses if you could easily freeze their assets, so to speak, and also ensure that you’re never caught short away from the bank, as so often happens in this film.  Again, current technology has been uninvented to make the story work.

How do people younger than 25 pay for anything?  It is clearly shown twice that the individuals clock only starts running at the age of 25, and in both cases it is clear that they are starting with exactly one year left to run.  How have they managed to survive for so long without being able to buy anything or gain any additional Time?  I’m guessing that the world doesn’t allow under-25’s unrestricted access to anything they want, so do they have rationed supplies or some other means of sustenance?  If I knew that my clock was running at 25, I’d want to get a head start and start working early, but that doesn’t seem to be an option.

Why set up the system in such a way that people can steal time so easily?  Firstly, in the middle part of the film the protagonists go on a bank-robbing spree in a series of jobs that clearly echo Bonnie & Clyde.  Given that they are amateurs, with only two pistols, and that current banks are sophisticated buildings designed to stop that sort of thing, why are the future banks so easily robbed?  Have people forgotten how to lock safes? Secondly, throughout the film it is shown that you can steal Time from individuals by making physical contact, it is even implied that you could steal Time from someone sleeping without their consent.  A sure-fire way of protecting yourself from physical harm is to ensure that there is no way to steal Time this way.  I could understand if there was a piece of black market technology employed by the Minutemen to steal Time, this would actually be pretty cool, but there is no explanation for the ridiculous ease of Time stealing.

Aside from the Time Keepers, can anyone else alter the amount of Time someone has?  Could someone hack himself or herself to become immortal?  Clearly the Time Keepers are monitoring the amount of Time in the system, but enterprising ‘criminals’ would sure devise a method of counterfeiting/laundering Time, given the shoddy nature of the banking sector.

Why do people just stop?  Is there a kill switch implanted in the individual?  Leaving aside the ridiculous notion that any sane person would willingly allow themselves to enter into this devil’s bargain, how is this regulated?  Has the entire human race been genetically engineered to work this way or is the technology implanted at birth?  As it is a global economy, I’d assume that the human race has been genetically engineered with this kill-switch, otherwise there would be an out for anyone willing to have a natural birth, and who wouldn’t want that in the ghetto of Dayton?  If you could eke out a subsistence existence from the land, why get involved in the Time economy at all?  Why subject your child to the horror of this system?

I’m trying to think of why some of these things are the way they are, and I think its because the film maker’s want to use the way Time as a currency works as a direct metaphor for how Money works now.  Because of this they have to have Time be as easily disposable, stealable and storable as money is now.  Money can be in the form of a coin in your pocket, a series of digits in a computer or a block of gold in a central bank.  In Time wants to mirror these so that it can have bank robberies, Time theft and still have a massive linked global economy, but the problem is, if you were to start from scratch, which they obviously would need to do, why would you copy the current system?  All of its flaws are obvious and could be designed out if you could start again.

If you were in this situation where people are clearly dying around you, you had an ever present clock telling you when you were going to die and nothing to lose except the eight hours you had left, why the fuck wouldn’t you try to take something back from the bastards who have everything?  This is my main problem with this film.  One of the things that stops revolutions is the fear that you’ve still got something to lose.  If you’ve clearly got nothing to lose, or at the least only a few hours left to live, why wouldn’t you do something about it?  Dayton is a shit place to live, where there is essentially nothing to do except be jumped/killed by gangsters and/or work in a crappy job which screws you over when you don’t make quota.  The world isn’t shown to be oppressive enough to stop any sort of real resistance, as the first two that try are a metal shop worker and a dizzy socialite and they succeed in crashing the global economy without any support.  The question isn’t why they succeeded, but why no one else tried before them?  I can’t think of a reasonable answer.