Sunday, July 19, 2009

Game Design: Cart Before Horse

This is another time when I wish I had the foresight to catalog all the silly things I've been reading lately, because this is going to be another post where I can not supply sources and it'll seem like I'm creating a caricature of my "opponents" in order to knock them down. But this is all based on arguments I've actually seen real people (if posters on internet message boards can be thusly called) make.

What I've seen the past week or so are some arguments made about Dungeons and Dragons that completely divorce the concept of "game design" from the game as it is actually played.

"Yeah, OD&D may be fast and easy to play and was popular at one time, but don't confuse that with good game design!"

That sort of thing.

Dungeons and Dragons was immaculately designed at its inception. It was just explained rather poorly in the manual. Further editions were not so much redesigns as re-explanations. The essentials of that original D&D system survived unchanged for 26 years (I'm talking official support), "warts" and all, with most "new rules" being more flavor than actual system, with the first large extensive changes (and damage) not coming until 11 years after the first publication (Unearthed Arcana) and the worst of the system damage (Skills and Powers) being produced decades after first publication in the last flailing days of a dying company. I daresay had TSR not collapsed until it's own bullshit, there would never have been a need for the Dungeons and Dragons system to substantially change.

3rd edition, as a design, had to be done ("We've simply reprinted the flagship work of that badly failed company!" probably wasn't an option, no matter the actual cause of TSR's failure), but can hardly be called a game design success. It attempts a much tighter system featuring balance and more structured game play. Yet this "tight" design created a much more complex game that takes longer to actually play, and collapsed under its own weight in short order requiring first a revamp (3.5) and then its own "Skills and Powers" (Book of Nine Swords) coming just six years after the system was first published. Pathfinder is changing that game still more, isn't it? That's an awful lot of system changes (not just re-explanations or production upgrades) in a small period of time (a decade is nothing) for a game that's supposed to be so much better designed than the original.

The jury is out on 4e. If we believe the marketing, the game isn't even finished yet. If core rules are going to continuously be released into the future, then the game as currently published doesn't have all the core rules available, right?

Tight designs are hard to get right. I was going to name HERO as one that had it right at the start, being essentially unchanged for 28 years (we do not speak of Fuzion in this house, although the fallout from that does prove you CAN go home again) with the last two decades of the added bulk really not adding too much of substance to the game as released in 1981. But, well, they're changing a lot (without changing so much, if early indications are to be believed) and next month's 6th edition release will likely be the first non-compatible edition to be released. *headdesk*

The Palladium system, as a design, can only be called a success. Insanity, you say? While perhaps not the prettiest thing on Earth, the same system works for everything from mutant martial artists to super heros to giant robot combat. It's survived, with I believe just one significant change in the early 90s (and even that might be an exaggeration on my part - I was off the Palladium bandwagon by the time Rifts came along), since 1983. People rail long and hard against the system, but it's versatile, successful, and rather "warty" (or should I just say non-universal)... just like the system it was derived from, probably not coincidentally. Headed up by a guy that's way closer to the gamer end of the gamer/businessman spectrum, I think we can safely say.

Basic Role-Playing is another proven game design. 29 years and counting on that (might be 31, but I'm not sure how close or not the pre-1980 BRP release of Runequest was). Upon the new BRP book's release last year, there was the usual (internet bullshit) hue and cry over how they should have improved the system, how it's so dated, blah blah blah. Does anyone not appreciate the fact that Call of Cthulhu "editions" don't require you to scrap your whole game to "convert"? Hell, don't even require you to buy the new book? Chaosium may not be the shining example of business savvy in gamerdom, but they've outlasted everyone, and I daresay they and their ancient system (longest continually supported in role-playing?) are doing better now in these "imperiled industry" days than they have in a long, long time. That's good damned game design, and maybe not a bad bit of business either.

Which brings us to the Forge. Forge-derived design structures work. But they don't work as a one size fits all general approach to all role-playing. But a fantastic selection of games have come out of there that mix tight designs designed to deliver a specific game experience. That's the bit about game design that people seem to miss. Tight game design tends not to deliver a free-flowing game play. Forge games get played a lot less than the other examples given above, so it's difficult to tell how well these tight designs (many of which are woefully underexplained in the actual texts... OD&D style!) stand up to the hammering of millions (OK, maybe just many hundreds of thousands) of unconnected players the way older D&D, Palladium, HERO, and BRP have.

This doesn't discount the designs that maybe haven't survived for so long (I have no direct experience with Traveller, for instance). A brilliant design, the best-designed game ever, doesn't guarantee longevity or economic success, but I daresay a game doesn't achieve both longevity and economic success (or survival, if we're playing pessimist) without a solid design underneath it.

Effective game design has absolutely nothing to with being tidy, unified, clever or interesting on its own terms and you can't take game mechanics out of context with the greater game and use them as examples of game design, good or bad. Game design is something that can only be judged in the context of a complete game and how that game plays.


  1. No mention of Tunnels & Trolls? MachFront will be a bit put out. There aren't any major universal deadly changes from what I have seen from 2nd edition to 7.5. BRP is a great system, whether people see it as outdated or not, just as Palladium has a good system, but the various writers (including the company's owner) have stretched the playability factor making bigger and shinier creatures and weapons and such for each new book.

  2. 1st and 2nd edition Runequest are just as BRP as anything after. Remember, that first BRP was derived from 2nd edition Runequest. So, I'd clearly say 21 years without a major change. It also has the advantage of being one of the few (and earliest) non-TSR games to have a retro clone in GORE.

    I don't give Palladium quite as much credit as you. By now, Rifts has 2.5 itself with the various big collection books. A Palladium retro-clone is needed. I could probably turn my Rifts-MGM edition into one but at that point we're less retro-clone and more the same relationship to Palladium that Palladium has to D&D.

  3. It's difficult to have a conversation about good game design when not only is the term not defined, but if it were it's likely each side of the argument disagrees about what good game design even means. When I see statements like "different experience point progressions" or "daily spells" etc. as examples of "poor" game design, I have to call BS. I can accept that some people don't like those elements, no problem with that at all, but it is a subjective judgment that those things are bad. It's a mighty convenient judgment at that if you use them as definitions. In the end, if you get to define all these elements as "bad" then by definition your game is "good."

    We have to remember where all this comes from. Some people cut their teeth on the most recent game designs, so of course most of those people will "feel" that those are better games. I'm even willing to grant many of the game designers the benefit of the doubt that they believe the games they designed are "better." The true problem is that we have to be dealing with people who are able to conceptually understand where these preferences come from, but if they did understand that they wouldn't throw around "better" and people wouldn't make ignorant statements like "but we understand so much more now about game design." No. We know so much more about genetics, we know so much more about Alzheimer's disease, we know so much more about cancer, but game design is not a scientific reality waiting to be discovered.

  4. Just because a game or game company has managed to sustain itself for a long-ass time, doesn't mean its game is well-designed. At least, I wouldn't call it evidence of such.

    It may be a game that does something no other game does, or does as well. It may be a game that has a rabid-core of die-hard fans from back before there were other options. It may be well marketed.

    If you want to point to longevity as evidence of successful game design, as in "the object of a designer is to make a game that people want to play and if a game has been played for a long time it is de facto good design"...well, okay. But another person might say "the object of a designer is to make a game that everyone understands and wants to buy"...and then you're holding up D&D3 as the ultimate in game design, simply based on its sales figures.

    I look at Call of Cthulhu, for example. It is a tight, focused, well-designed game. It was also for many many years the only game in town that did what it did as well as it did. Personally, I think that Pelgrane's recent Trail of Cthulhu is a better designed game. But its been on the market for less than a year (and what a year it's been folks, huh?) whereas CoC has been around for decades, people have familiarity with it and its systems, people have invested time and money in it, etc.. It will be difficult for ToC to stay in business, let alone supplant the hoary CoC, but it might in years to come. I have both now on my shelf, but I've made the switch.

    My point is that YOUR point is a debatable one, Jim. There is definitely some truth to it, but to me it doesn't ring TOTALLY true.

  5. @ Dan: I think of game design as an art form, and like any art form there are different aesthetics of composition. But part of the art of RPGs that sets it apart from a film, or good theater, or a great piece of music, or a nice painting is the method in which it is participation by the players. And you CAN make judgments of design based on how well it allows players to enjoy the objectives of the designer.

    This ain't just's system design also.

    I'd say there have been some innovations and evolutions of design over the years, just as there have been innovations and evolutions in other artistic mediums. We're not still painting on stone walls...or even on canvas!...anymore. Doesn't mean a computer painting is BETTER than a Renbrandt artistically, but we do have some knowledge that wasn't there before. It's not a science Dan, but that doesn't mean there's not something to learn.

  6. I'm beginning to think game design as a whole is a crock, at least how it's approached. An RPG is not really anything like a boardgame or cardgame. I'd say it's not even really like a wargame. It's its own beast. And the object of the rules is to Make Fictional Stuff Happen. From that viewpoint, OD&D works very well, and so do many other older games. But between really clumsy overly-complicated additions to the "Make Stuff Happen" guts of game systems and "tight design" that does a whole lot to make systems more like games and less like RPGs, we've gotten pretty lost.

  7. @JB

    Sure, I agree with that. People may have done things with the rules of p-n-p RPGs that no one thought of in the beginning. The point I try to make, that I think is the most important, is that a p-n-p RPG is not technology in the sense that a computer or game console is. We can talk about how a computer improves with better or more advanced technology, learning, materials, etc. A p-n-p game does not do this. It may evolve based on changing preferences of designers, players, the market, culture, etc. but nothing makes a set of arbitrary game rules "upgrade." No one could release a new version of monopoly and convince people the game design is more "advanced," or do that with chess, or any other game like that because it doesn't make sense. With D&D the game rules have been tinkered with all along, for various reasons and various motivations behind them. It's this attitude of Social Darwinism that I reject, and it's used as a marketing gimmick.

  8. @Dan seem to be saying that RPGs cannot have upgrades because they don't have objective measurable differences as compared to say, technology. For example I could compare an early edition of WIndows to a later edition of Windows and point to how the later edition is "better" because it can process more data, work faster, and accomplish more. Right?

    And while a later edition of an RPG may have streamlined rules, some people may prefer the clunkier older version and since preference is subjective in an RPG (or any art form) one cannot be held up as "better" than another. Right?

    Because I think you CAN hold up an RPG system as "better" than another. I can take two games, say Albedo 2nd edition and Albedo: Platinum Catalyst. Both facilitate a particular kind of imaginary "play" centered on anthropomorphic animals in space. Both are "war games." And both editions have very different rule systems. And I can tell you, the later system is designed flat out better. And the reason why is because I finished reading APC and I had a pretty darn good idea how to play and run a game, and I got through A2E (the earlier edition) and I said WTF? I couldn't even make sense of its convolutions.

    Now I suppose you can say I have a subjective preference for the APC system and that if I simply grokked A2E system or had someone TEACH me how to use it, I would be able to have a more informed decision.

    However, the game did not come with a sticker that says "REQUIRES MENTOR." As designed, it should be able to instruct me on how to run an anthropomorphic animals in space military campaign...and that it did not do. From a design standpoint it does not succeed.

    Would you say that computer programming languages like BASIC, C++, and Java can be compared objectively in terms of which is the better design? Or Mac OS versus Windows? I wouldn't think so, because they all allow the end users to do what they need to do depending on those users' preference for the design of the language or application. But I'll tell you if I PERSONALLY designed a programming language or OS, it would SUCK BALLS compared to any of these existing languages, because I don't know shit about the objective.

    You can take listen to two bands and tell one is terrible and the other is not, even when they are presenting the same music...or even covering the same song! Nothing's more subjective than music, right? But some folks are simply better musicians. They may have had access to better teachers (building on their past) or they may have been born with creative talent and a love of practicing.

    I don't know, maybe we're talking apples and oranges here because I'm not saying one's idea is inherently better than another, but the EXECUTION of the idea (whether with music or in game design or in some type of technological format ) can certainly be better.

    I am certainly NOT saying that later editions of games are inherently better than others...sometimes well-meaning types try to "correct things" that don't need correcting (say whether AC goes up or down); sometimes they "correct" things so badly that they destroy the inherent way the game was meant to be played (and thus, should probably have re-named to distinguish it from one to another). But I DO believe we can objectively say some games have better design than others.

    @ Jim: I realize that if I simply adopted your stance as an objective measure, this would be easier. : )

  9. Jim, two points.

    1. Chaosium haven't outlasted everyone. They have outlasted everyone but one company, Flying Buffalo. T&T have been mentioned up thread, and I'd just like to mention FBI as well. 1970. That's a long roll of years.

    2. If you think the fact that Palladium can handle a lot of different things, then D&D3 is a smashing success! It has been retooled to work for many very different settings (like 2nd ed, but without breaking) and also been the basis for many OGL games of more or less difference to it. Many old schooler hate it, and it has problems for us in the OSR camp, but it's not because it didn't work. It does. It just tries to do different things. Also, that it had to be reworked in the 3.5 edition is pure marketing bullshit by WotC.

  10. Game design, as a craft (or art) and an academic disciple, is certainly developing. I'm reading a 600-page tome on game design published five years ago. It has smart ideas. (Rules of play, by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman)

    Games themselves are not inherently better because game design has improved, though. Particularly in the case of roleplaying games, I'd say that once they reach a certain level of not-awful design, you can't really meaningfully rate one as better then other. Which edition of D&D is best? That depends on what one wants to do with it. I hear 4E is pretty good at fantastical tactical miniature combats interspersed with roleplay (in the narrow of sense). This is even more true when looking at games outside the D&D ghetto; Forge-style indie games, say. One can't meaningfully say that Universalis is better or worse than (some edition of) D&D, since they are so radically different.

    Problems come when people assume all editions of D&D are designed to support exactly what their favourite edition of D&D supports best. Such people tend to see the quality of D&D as a graph with a peak where their favourite edition is, so that the graph increases before that point and decreases after it. (I assuming that editions of D&D can be placed on single line, which is not quite true, I think, but the argument remains.)

  11. @JB

    I do agree that sometimes the way some mechanics are executed seem more clear, or make more sense, etc. However, that has nothing to do with "upgrading."

    This general argument always gets turned around. If someone wants to claim that RPG rules can be "upgraded" or evolve like technology, then prove it. The burden is in that person to prove it, not on someone like me who calls bullshit on it. A person can throw around generic terms like "streamlined" or "clunky," and I do have a sense for what you mean. The problem is that your clunky may be my ideal way of doing it. Your streamlined may be crappy to me. All of that is irrelevant, though, because even if one rule is clunky and another isn't, changing it to something you perceive as streamlined is not an "upgrade," it's a personal preference.

    So to get away from all this abstract talk, because that's always what it devolves into, for once I'd actually like to see an argument based on specifics. It's not enough for someone to say "3e is so much more streamlined." I want examples of specifics, with reasoning for why it should be seen as evolutionarily more "superior." I suspect that the reason we don't see something like this more often is because the bottom line is that an argument based on this evolutionary model isn't just wrong, it's silly. Claiming daily spells needs to be fixed is a statement of personal preference, even though it may be phrased as an absolute truth. Saying that individual class progression is clunky is a personal preference. Some of us prefer individual class progression. Changing it all to one progression isn't the "smarter" thing to do, or the most "evolved" thing to do. We only ever see assertions these things are "better," and for good reason, because they cannot be backed up by absolute truth. They can only be backed up by personal preference, but that is not the same thing as an evolutionary upgrade.

  12. (*sorry Jim*)

    @ Dan: Maybe we are talking apples and oranges, here.

    I'm not talking about individual rules systems: skills, spells, classes, advancement. I'm not saying that using a wound chart (like White Wolf uses) is better or "evolved" from a hit point system (like D&D uses). I'm not saying one can or should judge design based on individual elements.

    But a game's overall design can (in my opinion) be judged based on how well it does what the designer wants it to do. For example, reward systems (in game) reinforce behavior (in players). If the behavior that the reward system promotes is NOT the intention of the game designer, then the game lacks coherence and is thus "poorly designed."

    If two games (say OS D&D and 4E D&D) state they have the same objectives of game design, but one accomplishes the objective more effectively, then that game can be said to have better game design. You may say it's a matter of preference...hell, you can say it's a matter of semantics. But if the game says something like "limited only by your imagination" and then provides in-game limitations like a detailed and elaborate skill system, that's poor game design. Dress it up, put bells and whistles on it, but it can be stood next to another game and compared...and objectively in my opinion.

    But hey, you may not agree with me. : )

  13. >>No mention of Tunnels & Trolls?

    I don't know that I've ever even seen a copy of Tunnels & Trolls, and I'm only very roughly familiar with it. Hard to mention it under those circumstances. :)

    >>Personally, I think that Pelgrane's recent Trail of Cthulhu is a better designed game.

    Even if it is "better," that doesn't make BRP suddenly badly designed.

    >>For example I could compare an early edition of WIndows to a later edition of Windows and point to how the later edition is "better" because it can process more data, work faster, and accomplish more. Right?



    >>But some folks are simply better musicians. They may have had access to better teachers (building on their past) or they may have been born with creative talent and a love of practicing.

    ... which doesn't necessarily mean anything, either. I'd rather listen to Discharge than Dream Theater or Fates Warning, but I love Spiral Architect and Cynic.

    >>Also, that it had to be reworked in the 3.5 edition is pure marketing bullshit by WotC.

    "This last thing which was the BIGGEST GAME and GREATEST VERSION EVER was actually rather broken. Buy the NEW GREATEST VERSION EVER! For real this time!"

    And it works. People keep buying the new version. I don't understand marketing at all.

    If we go only on the marketing that they obviously want us to believe, WotC is, dollar for dollar, the worst game design studio in history (11 editions of M:TG in 16 years?). :P

    >>(*sorry Jim*)

    ... as if I have a problem with having an active blog. :D

  14. Vista is the 4E of operating systems...hell, it also seems to have been heavily influenced by WoW! But *I* was going to leave it out of the discussion...dammit, Jim! Yet another example of upgraded technology.

    OH...and I didn't say CoC was badly designed. There are some games that are fatally flawed games, there are some that are not...and there are some that are superb. But I'll leave the discussion of the differences for my own bloggity-blog topic. ; )

  15. To me the key is playability. Does it actually work at the game table? There are two horizons that impact this. The first is on the game design side--playability is affected by things like concept, consistency, complexity, and continuity (among other things--I'm out of "c" words).

    However, the other horizon is that of the player. They will judge the playability of a game by a number of other additional factors--their own expectations, their skill as players, and their personal gaming preferences.

    The early editions of D&D certainly have their warts from a game design perspective (as does 3.5e), but games should ultimately be judged by how they actually work when played by real people (IMHO).

    Any game has a number of variables that impact the actual playability, but the issue is much more complex with RPGs because each game is, by nature, incomplete until the GM/DM/CK/Ref and players complete its creation at the game table.

    There is a certain point where it is simply personal preference. This doesn't mean that it is just a feeling, as we can rationally discuss why we like this vs that. In the end, however, I think the best game system is the game system that supports what you want to play in the style you want to play it.

  16. "It's good because it's old!" is not a very impressive argument. And games that don't change because they are still under the thumb of their monomanaical creator doesn't mean they shouldn't be changed.

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  18. Crap. I don't know how to edit my post, so I deleted it. I'll just say that there's no such thing as "superior game design". There are only roleplaying games that we PREFER.

    mxyzplk said >>> "It's good because it's old!" is not a very impressive argument. And games that don't change because they are still under the thumb of their monomanaical creator doesn't mean they shouldn't be changed. <<<

    mxyzplk, a roleplaying game isn't good because it's old. A game is good if it provides an enjoyable experience that stands the test of time. For example, there are people that still love AD&D, and even prefer it over 4e. Which then has the "superior game design"? The answer is....NEITHER. It's all personal preference.