A Game by Any Other Name

During the podcast about skill, luck, and social elements in games (Episode 6), we very briefly talked about whether certain activities could be classified as games or not. Those couple of sentences have spawned multiple discussions about what truly makes something a game or not a game. The topic has come up a number of times with my fellow podcasters, with other folks in the game industry, and at the Penny Arcade Expo convention. Rather than trying to summarize all those discussions, however, let’s start with the absolute authority on everything – the internet. The first definition for “game” to pop up in my web search was that a game is “a form of play or sport, especially a competitive one played according to rules and decided by skill, strength, or luck.”

Based on my discussions, one of the most common elements that some gamers want to infuse into the definition of a game is meaningful player choice. Personally, I want my games to have lots of meaningful player choice. If the outcome of the game feels completely random, it’s not a game I consider enjoyable. But we’re not trying to define a good game, simply a game, and it’s pretty hard to argue that Candy Land and Chutes & Ladders are not games. They don’t involve a single meaningful player choice, yet they’re among some of the top-selling board games of all time. A large portion of betting games similarly lack any way for the player to influence the outcome. There are, in fact, numerous checks and balances in place to ensure that the outcome remains completely random. We could claim these activities are not games, but the gaming commission will likely disagree. So I think we’ve got to concede that something can be a game even if it does NOT have meaningful player choice.

On the flip side, we could argue that a game must have an element of luck, but that’s a far more difficult position to defend. Numerous “classic board games” do NOT involve luck elements or randomization. If Chess and Go are not board games, I think we very quickly need to reassess our definition.

Another common element that some folks want in the definition is that a game has a winner. The definition noted that a game was a form of play or sport, “especially a competitive one,” implying that winners are at least common in gaming. Certainly, many games have winners, but entire genres of games do not have this particular element. The vast majority of role-playing games do not lead to a single player being declared the winner, plenty of video games past and present never reach a “You Win” ending, and numerous party games have arbitrary winners or no winner at all. It seems pretty clear that you do NOT need to have a winner to have a game.

It would sure be nice if we could say all games are fun. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have to think back too far to come up with an experience with a game that was NOT fun. Perhaps it was because of the behavior of another player at the table, perhaps it was because of some bad luck regarding the luck-based elements of the game, or perhaps the game itself is simply not one you would ever find enjoyable. But as noted earlier, we’re not trying to define a good game but simply a game, and we’re unlikely to find a game in all the world that every single player would agree is fun.

So we could say a game is something you play. It’s in the definition above, and no one can really claim that it’s wrong, but the word “play” isn’t quite as clear as it could be since we “play” music and movies and such. So what if we shift that just a bit and call a game an activity that has one or more players? It still isn’t a complete definition of a game, but I think  it includes a lot of game activities our previous criteria ruled out. Whether a game is player choice oriented or luck based, co-operative or competitive, fun or un-fun, a game DOES have one or more players.

And the last portion of the game definition the internet started us with is that a game has rules. This is another element that’s come up in conversation fairly frequently. One could potentially argue that the rules aren’t always codified or that they aren’t always clear, but there is always some form of rules underpinning a game. I think we could make the case that rules are what separate a randomized event from a game. A ball falling on a spinning plate with numbers and colors on it is not a game, but if you add in the betting rules of Roulette and add some players, I think most readers could agree we’ve got a game there. Again, we’re not defining a good game, just a game, and a game DOES have rules.

So that leads us to define a game as “an activity with one or more players performed in accordance with established rules.”

What do you think? Is that an accurate definition of a game? Are there activities we’ve accidentally included that are not games? Are there games we’ve excluded with our definition? Perhaps most importantly of all, how would you personally define a “game?”

The Waiting Game

You may have noticed that humans aren’t the most patient people. They’ll risk injury and thousands of dollars in damage to get home one car length earlier than they would have otherwise. So it should come as no surprise whatsoever that people don’t like waiting for games.

If you spend much time on gaming forums or social media, you’ve probably seen someone complain about the delayed release of a game, an expansion, or new miniatures for a hobby miniatures game. Recently, you’ve probably also seen an increase in complaints about delays regarding crowdfunded games on platforms like Kickstarter. Today, I’m going to write about some of the reasons delays occur in the industry of traditional games (card games, board games, hobby miniatures games, and role-playing games).

Quality Control

I can’t back this up with mountains of data, but I believe that issues of quality are the #1 cause of game delays. By the time a company gets the proof copies of their game, it’s nearly time to release the game to the public. If there’s anything wrong with the colors, the components, the rulebook, the packaging, or any number of other variables, the company is faced with a difficult choice – release a product that’s lower quality than desired or delay the product’s release.

For hobby gaming miniatures or miniatures intended for inclusion in a board game, those delays could be quite severe. If a miniature intended for hard plastic production goes all the way back to the sculpting phase, it could cost two years or more. If it’s “only” a smaller change to make the miniature easier to produce or reduce warping or something, that can still mean a delay of several months. That degree of impact makes it easy to understand why some miniatures are released even if their scale is slightly wrong or if the individual parts don’t fit together quite as perfectly as we’d like. If the final product still looks great and the problems aren’t insurmountable, the company might stick to their desired release date rather than attempt to resculpt something a slightly different size or re-engineer the components for easier assembly.

Even a card game or role-playing game could face production issues that incur a hit of several months to the desired release date, and we haven’t even mentioned non-production quality control situations yet. If a piece of art isn’t up to snuff or a card design turns out to be confusing, the game company must make the tough decision to delay the product or make sacrifices in terms of quality.

Changing Course

Changes are an interesting source of delays because many change-induced delays occur before a product is announced. This means many of these delays are transparent to the game’s customers, but changes are another really common cause that games are released later than originally intended. In some cases, a game will be redesigned half a dozen times or more, each iteration chewing through development and playtesting time that should be moving the game toward its final form rather than meandering through different ideas that don’t stick around. I’ve seen games go back to the drawing board half a dozen times or more and have even seen solid game designs put on hold for years or even indefinitely. And substantial changes in art direction or graphic design have the same kind of impact as game development changes.

Course change delays are most visible to you as gamers when we’re talking about expansion material rather than new products. If the plan for the next expansion suddenly changes, especially late in the project’s life cycle, those changes can cause delays to the expansion’s release schedule.

It’s also worth noting that changing course does not always relate to the product itself. If game developers or artists or editors or graphic designers are moved into different projects, the new member of the team may lead to delays. Sometimes, they’ll make changes that directly cause delays, but most times the shake-up in personnel will simply incur delays as the team adjusts to its new composition and as new members get up to speed.

Breaking New Ground

The last big origin of delays I want to mention is breaking new ground. If a company has never used a particular manufacturer before, any estimates of how long production will take and how long those aforementioned quality corrections will take could be significantly off the mark. This risk is increased several times over when a company enters a whole new segment of the market such as making their first board game that uses a licensed intellectual property or their first pre-painted miniatures line.

That already increased risk is then magnified tenfold for a company that is attempting to produce a game for the very first time. Every Kickstarter campaign must include a “Risks and Challenges” section as part of the base template for releasing a Kickstarter project. For first-time game makers, that section should be sure to note there’s a HUGE risk of missing their estimated release date. They don’t yet know how any changes will impact their schedule. They don’t yet know how quality concerns will delay production. This is why you’ll often see a new company’s subsequent Kickstarter projects use more conservative delivery dates than their initial offering.

In conclusion, I think the key when dealing with game delays is patience. I realize that’s a whole lot easier said than done, but you can rest assured that game makers out there are even more excited about getting their awesome new game ideas into your hands than you are to receive them. Any delays are just as frustrating to them as they are to you.

Three Element Alchemy

Most games can be broken down into three elements – Skill, Luck, and Social. These three elements are mixed together in vastly different ratios and with vastly different results, but the basic building blocks are always the same.

Skill game mechanics take innumerable forms, but the essence of such mechanics is always player choice. The choices you make building an army or constructing a deck, the choices you make when positioning your pieces or tiles, the choices you make when determining the right card or spell to use at a given time – any player choice that can impact the outcome of the game falls under the umbrella of skill-based game mechanics.

Luck game mechanics are the simplest of the three elements to identify. Their core essence is randomization. Rolling dice and shuffling cards are extremely common luck elements, but spinning a spinner, mixing face-down items on the table, blindly pulling an item from a bag, and various other means of randomization are all luck-based game mechanics.

Social game mechanics have a core essence of player interaction. Any time you need something you can only get from another player, it’s a social game mechanic. Voluntarily trading cards, resources, or information is a very common and easily-recognized social game mechanic, but any game mechanic that requires players to read one another or bluff is also a socially-based game mechanic.

Let’s look at a few examples that focus on just a single element.

Chess is a great example of a pure skill game. There are no cards or dice providing luck elements. You can play a whole game without ever communicating with your opponent, so there is no intrinsic social element. Chess, Go, Mancala, Checkers, and the like are games of pure skill.

War, the traditional card game, is a pure luck game. There are no decisions the players can make or social interactions the players can have that will impact the results of the game. War, Bingo, and Chutes & Ladders are games of pure luck.

Some Diceless RPGs fall into the category of pure social games. Some include player decisions that impact the outcome of encounters but others are a purely social experience. And naturally, the big draw of diceless RPGs is the lack of randomization that typically comes from dice. Diceless RPGs and various story-telling games are some of the rare games that are purely social.

Chances are, your favorite games are some alchemical admixture of at least two (if not all three) of these elements.

Most Hobby Miniatures Games lean heavily on skill-based game mechanics when it comes to constructing an army, positioning your figures, and engineering favorable trades. There are typically luck-based elements, though, and even occasional social components requiring player interaction in order to resolve the game.

Most Dice Games lean heavily on luck-based game mechanics since the entire genre is based around a randomization mechanic – rolling dice. The popular dice game King of Tokyo, however, incorporates some critical player decisions as well as lots of player interaction if you’re playing with three or more players.

Most Co-op Games lean heavily on socially-based game mechanics. There is typically no chance of success without working together toward the common goal. But randomized cards and/or dice are common, and individual player choices (skill-based game mechanics) greatly influence the outcome of the game.

The three core elements – skill, luck, and social game mechanics – come together in some ratio to form the greater whole. The biggest piece of the pie varies greatly from game to game, but (nearly) every game out there boils down to a mix of these three elements.

The game mechanic of card drafting is particularly noteworthy, here. This increasingly popular game mechanic is one of the few that is intrinsically skill-based (card choice), luck-based (card draw), and socially-based (card passing).

Do you favor one element above the others? What games do you think have the best balance of skill, luck, and social elements? What mixture of the skill, luck, and social elements leads to the best games? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments or via email at Contact@ClockworkPhoenixGames.com.

Stay On Target

The target audience is a critical consideration for any product. During my engineering days, such considerations were very clear. The customer would provide specifications, and I would create the control panel or wiring diagram or program to meet those specifications.

As a game developer and sometimes-writer, the target audience’s wants and needs are far less cut and dried. When it comes to creative pursuits, it’s very easy to fall into creating the game you would want to play or the story you would want to read, but this can be a trap. It can lead to an audience that’s much narrower than the target audience you truly want. In the worst cases, it can lead to restricting yourself to an audience of one! Obviously, this is less than ideal for any sort of product.

And so it becomes very important to define the target audience at the start and to keep that target audience firmly in mind, even if you are not a member of that target audience, make that especially if you are not a member of that target audience. Target audience will impact art choices, game mechanics, and even aspects of your game as seemingly innocuous as packaging.

It’s also highly beneficial to consider ways to expand your target audience. Movies frequently tone down certain elements in order to achieve a PG-13 rating instead of an R rating. Whether you personally like it or loathe it, the fact remains – PG-13 movies gross two to three times more than R rated movies on average.

Cutting down on over-the-top gore or sensuality can have the same impact for games. In some cases, it can broaden your audience by entire nations that have censorship laws against certain themes or imagery. Always be mindful, however, that aiming for too broad an audience can dilute the appeal. Just because a game doesn’t offend anyone out there doesn’t mean it appeals to anyone out there, either.

Forming First-Rate Feedback

You may not hear it very often, but I firmly believe that many folks currently in game development are there at least in part because they knew how to give great playtest feedback. Playtesters work closely with game developers to help create a superior finished game and are, in essence, junior developers on the project. So when a game developer position is available, it’s only natural to think of these junior developers and consider the best among them for a full-time position.

Creating great playtest feedback ties into the playtest practices I talked about in The Science of Playtest article, but that’s really just the beginning. A playtester could have truly impressive playtest practices and an amazingly insightful mind for game development yet still provide very little to the playtest process unless they know how to communicate their playtest feedback effectively.

One of the reasons it’s so difficult to give great playtest feedback is that the gaming culture is often rooted in knee-jerk reactions and hyperbole. When visiting forums or social media groups, how often have you read extreme commentary about how good or bad a game (or card or model or whatever) is based on little to no actual experience with the product? Unless you don’t go on gaming forums or social media groups, I’m guessing you’ve seen such feedback quite a bit.

Good playtest feedback is basically the opposite of that. You want a good understanding of the game (or card or model) before expressing anything more than your first impressions, and you want to avoid hyperbole since it’s a barrier to clear communication. Consider, for example, how much clearer it is to say you think something “should cost 1 more point (or mana, gem, etc.)” versus saying you think it “is ridiculously overpowered.” In one case, the game developer knows exactly what you think. In the other, it would be very easy to overcompensate when attempting to correct the game balance.

Here are a few other things to keep in mind.

Always present a potential solution. The number one tip for effective feedback is to always include your thoughts on how to fix the problems you’ve identified. The game developer might not use your solution exactly as written, but it gives a clear picture of the direction you think the change should go and the scope of the change. “Based on the past several playtest games, we think this card should cost 1 more gem” is a good example of showcasing the direction and scope of a recommended change.

Balance being clear with being concise. There’s no perfect formula for finding this balance, but feedback that is too verbose has the potential for your message to get lost in the noise while feedback that is too terse won’t sufficiently explain how or why you’ve reached your playtest conclusions. When you reach the end of a section of playtest feedback, reread it and ask, “Did I sufficiently explain how I reached my conclusion?” and add some detail as necessary. Then ask, “Did I talk about things that have nothing to do with my conclusion?” and trim those out as necessary.

Prioritize your feedback. Sometimes, you’ll have quite a bit of playtest feedback, and that’s great! But you’ll also want to prioritize playtest feedback. Whether you use a numbered list or a color code or a “high, medium, low” system is up to you, but some sort of priority system is super helpful. There’s a lot of playtest feedback to consider, and a way to quickly identify the most important problems your group identified will help make those a priority for potential changes.

The Science of Playtest

I’m pretty passionate about playtesting. More specifically, I’m passionate about establishing and maintaining good playtest practices. I’ve had the opportunity to playtest many different products over the years for a number of different game companies. I’ve participated in playtest sessions as a playtester, as a playtesting coordinator, and as a game developer, giving me a broad perspective on playtesting and plenty of opportunities to see what works most effectively.

When I sat down to write this article, one of the article names that appealed to me for a moment was “The Art of Playtest.” The other side of my brain, however, immediately rebelled at the thought. I’ve mentioned in blogs and podcasts in the past that I love how game development merges analytical and creative pursuits. That’s true of playtesting just as it’s true of game development, but playtesting requires far more objectivity and critical thinking than people might realize.

It’s easy to think of a playtest session like a normal gaming session – you hang out with friends, and you play a game. Then, because it’s a playtest session, you talk a bit about how you felt the game went and what aspects of it you feel could be a bit different. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of playtesting, but that’s not enough.

Playtest games are essentially experiments. I’ve often said that “playtesting is light on play and heaving on testing.” The goal of players is to compete for victory in a game. The goal of testers, however, is to help create a better finished product. It doesn’t matter who wins or loses. You’re not testing player skill. It doesn’t even matter if you finish the game. What matters is what you learn and how effectively you communicate that information to the game developer. Shifting your mindset from working against other players as competitors to working with other players as fellow scientists performing an experiment will go a long, long way toward increasing the value and impact of your playtest feedback.

Thinking about your playtest session as an experiment will help in all sorts of ways beyond that first step of working with your opponents rather than against them. Taken to heart, it helps alleviate some of the following playtest pitfalls in a way that comes as second nature.

1. Don’t play favorites. When performing experiments, you need to test a variety of outcomes. Even after you find your favorite character, faction, play style, etc. in a playtest game, don’t get hung up there. There’s a ton more variables to consider, and you should take this opportunity to experiment. Your goal should be the balance and fun of the game as a whole, not one specific element of the game.

2. Expect change. It’s very easy to form opinions about a game mechanic or a character or a rule and then stick to that opinion. As gamers, we do it all the time. As playtesters, however, it’s a trap! Playtest games are constantly changing, and it’s absolutely critical to look at the current version of the game rather than relying on outdated impressions.

3. Consider the big picture. It’s easy to get hung up in the current revision of the game and your own playtest group’s experiences. After all, your feedback is the piece of the picture you see. In the big picture, however, lots of other folks are submitting playtest feedback, and the current revision of the game is changing all the time. Your feedback will be heard and considered, but it won’t always result in immediate and visible change.

So those are some of my thoughts on the science of playtest. In the next blog, I’ll be continuing the topic of playtesting to talk about how to maximize your playtest feedback. Being an effective playtester not only helps to make great games, but working smoothly with game developers can frequently lead to additional opportunities in the gaming industry.

Cooperation is Key (Co-op Gaming)

Though games where all involved players play on a single team have been a popular part of electronic gaming nearly since its inception, their popularity has only recently ramped up when it comes to traditional gaming. Board games and card games have been around for orders of magnitude longer than electronic games, but the earliest known board games are almost invariably tests of skill between two players. They frequently simulated war or politics and required one player to outthink his opponent to achieve victory. More recent games have placed players on opposing teams or have even set a single player against all other involved players, but it’s only been in very recent years that truly cooperative games have emerged and subsequently become one of the fastest-growing segments of the traditional gaming market.

The electronic roots of the cooperative game shine through even in the jargon. The systems that govern the obstacles for the players to overcome are usually called the game’s AI. Such systems can be as simple as flipping over a card to see the next challenge or can involve a complex “program” of conditions and results not unlike rudimentary computer programming. No matter the complexity of the resolution, however, the complexities of co-op game design considerations are high. Without a human intelligence behind the game’s challenges, there is a delicate balance between a cooperative board game that is too difficult for players to find enjoyable and one that is too simple to provide an engaging challenge. This is why cooperative game reviews on sites like Board Game Geek often focus on critiquing a cooperative game’s difficulty level.

One common way to address some of these difficulty level concerns is to include rules that allow the players to adjust the difficulty level before start of the game. There is a host of ways that different game developers have provided this “dial” to their players, ranging from very simple and elegant tweaks to substantially reworking game rules to alter the experience. When done well, though, such rules allow a game to provide a challenge to veteran gamers while keeping the game accessible to a more casual crowd.

Cooperative games have proven so popular because of their inclusivity. Whether the players win or lose, no one player is defeated by his fellow gamers. If they win, everyone gets to enjoy the victory, and even if they lose, they can focus on what they can do next time rather than focusing on the defeat itself. No matter your own gaming group’s preferences, I’d strongly encourage you to check out a cooperative game or two sometime. These games are a fascinating and rapidly-growing segment of the traditional games market, and they provide a change of pace from competitive gaming options.

Age of Creative Freedom

Modern technological advances have made it easier than ever to share not just our thoughts but our creative works. Even just a few decades ago, it was a real challenge to get a book published for mass consumption. A writer needed to submit their work to major publishers, wait to have that work reviewed, and likely have it rejected. Even if we ignore digital publishing entirely, print-on-demand services allow people to print copies of their books at a reasonable cost. Beyond that, crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo give authors a means to produce an entire print run of a book if they can establish an audience for their work.

The same principles easily translate to card games and role-playing games and can even apply to big box board games (though at higher print-on-demand costs than purely print media products). In order to crowdfund a new card game or board game, a crowdfunding user need only generate an idea, develop that idea, test it, write and edit the rulebook, commission all required art, perform all required graphic design for the game’s components, create a compelling campaign video, and get the game produced, packed, and shipped.

Yes, that’s a whole lot of work, but it’s doable. It’s a far cry from doing most of those steps anyway, then submitting it to one of a tiny handful of game manufacturers, and then hoping for the best. The ease of creating games in the modern age has allowed the number of game manufacturers to explode over the past 50 years.

Even consumer goods products are quickly heading toward an anyone-can-do-it state. 3d printing, which is becoming more and more accessible, is a great way to prototype a product idea to gauge interest. Once the idea is proven, it can be crowdfunded just like a book or game. An idea that would have required a six-figure investment years ago can now be brought to customers for a much lower initial investment (or at least one that’s spread out across far more people).

At this point, I’ll resist the growing urge to launch into a First Church of the Transistor sermon and wrap up the article. What do you think? Are there ideas you wish someone would create in this age of creative freedom? Are there things you would like to create?

Tune into the upcoming episode of Your Turn Next! (Episode 001) to hear Reese, Tony, and I discuss this article as well as a variety of gaming topics.