Guns & Flaws
by Shannon Appelcline
For almost a year and a half or so now, I've been writing an increasing number of game reviews for RPGnet. At first I was just trying to better understand mercantile games, for a possible SF/mercantile game design here at Skotos. But I just kept going afterward, learning more and more about strategic game design in general. Now I have over 15 months' worth of thought on board game design that's just waiting to burst forth into actual new games.
Today, in a response to one of my reviews, a game designer said, "You see the flaws [in my game], but you understand the basic idea I am trying to convey". I just nodded my head at first, but then I realized that the designer was alluding to a fairly basic rule of game design that I've decided to expand upon just a bit today.
I call it: sticking to your guns & admitting your flaws.
Sticking To Your Guns
Let's take a step back to the reviews I wiote, and my philosophy there, because that'll bring us back around to the first of those game design rules. In the case of my review today, I was looking at Portable Adventures: 8th Grade which is a light and funny game without a whole lot of strategic possibility. I've played the game a couple of times now and enjoyed it, but at no point was it brain surgery. It got some laughs, it played quickly, then I moved on to something else.
As a reviewer I made it my first job to sit down and assess what kind of game 8th Grade was. It wasn't a serious abstract strategy game, like Chess, nor even a casual abstract strategy game like Parcheezi. It wasn't a wargame like Diplomacy or Axis & Allies. It wasn't a serious lightly themed strategy game like Tigris & Euphrates or New England. It wasn't a medium-weight family game like Pirate's Cove or Mystery of the Abbey. Nope, it was what's called in the board game trade a "beer & pretzels" game--light and fun, but generally geared toward the gamer.
After coming to a conclusion about basic categorization I then did my best to review the game based upon how well it met the goals of its intended niche. I didn't fault it for lack of strategy, because that wasn't the point, nor did I fault it for its high dependence on luck, for similar reasons. Instead I looked at: how much fun was it to play, how fast did it play, how easy was it, etc. If it had failed on these criteria, you can bet I would have complained. (It didn't.)
In order to really assess an online game, you need to apply the same rules. If someone was reviewing Castle Marrach I'd expect them to discuss how good a job it did of encouraging continued socialization and storytelling, while in The Eternal City I'd expect them to look more at the skill, combat, and other achievement-based systems.
However, this is all idealization, based upon an ideal world. The honest fact is, when someone begins to assess your game, as a reviewer--or more likely as a player--they often won't "review fair". They'll instead, as often as not, assess your game by the criteria of what they want it to be--just like I could have reviewed 8th Grade by the more strategic and serious criteria that I prefer.
Only you, as the game designer, really know what your intention for the game is. You should have explained that intention to your players to the best of your ability, but even if you didn't, you're going to be the final arbiter. Thus you need to stick by your guns. When players, reviewers, or whoever, explain to you how your game is totally broken because it isn't the game they want it to be, you just need to let that pass by. If you try and modify your game to suit the needs of every potential player, you'll, in the best case, dilute your core ideals and, in the worst case, lose your existing audience as well.
Admitting Your Flaws
There's a flip side to all of this. You can't just brush away any complaints claiming that the player doesn't understand your game.
To take a really obvious example, yesterday I fixed a minor bug in Galactic Emperor: Hegemony. Planets weren't showing up on the Advance Orders screen if the name of a planet was a subset of the name of a planet that the player already owned (e.g., "Bo" didn't show up on the advance orders screen because the player already owned "Boron"). Clearly, this was a bug, no question about it. Any attempt for me to say differently would have been ridiculous ("I'm sorry, but the current algorithm matches my vision of the game, as the galactic databands obscure transferrance of command information when two planets have names that are too similar").
However, as you step up from such simple situations, things become trickier. For example, someone could come to us with a model for an expanded dueling system in Castle Marrach, wherein each player could take a variety of levels of gory wounds on any part of the body ("You've scratched Anastacia's knee" or "You gouge out Martel's eye"). On the one hand I might dismiss that out-of-hand, saying that it was more violent than our world vision or else that the combat system was overly complicated for what we ultimately envisioned as a social game. On the other hand, we should at least consider the argument that such a system might improve the storytelling possibilities, which are ultimately at the heart of the game.
Thus, you have to carefully consider the complaints and suggestions that come in, assess whether they're running orthagonal to your own vision of the game, or if instead the suggestions could genuinely improve the exactly milleu that you're trying to convey. And, if the latter is the answer, then you have to admit your flaws.
My thoughts on game design this week are really simple, and they're all about the game feedback that you'll receive. Simply, you need to listen to it all, but neither be too liberal, making every change requested, nor too conservative, ignoring everything said. In this case, the middle of the road will win out every time.