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10 April 2008 @ 03:14 pm
Designing Fun with Rules  
So, in my last post, I put up a diagram. People seem to like the top half of it. zamiel has a problem with the bottom half and my implication of Authorial Intent.

Since I didn't actually write any content around the diagrams I posted, it's not surprising that I didn't communicate what I had hoped. Here's a new picture for discussion:

Here's where Authorial Intent comes in. Notice that this diagram doesn't contain anything about players yet. This is just the rules and the designer and his expectations. Hopefully, his expectations come from playtesting and not random theorizing about what his game will do. If the game designer doesn't actually playtest the rules, then substitute "designer's fondest hopes and dreams" for "playtesting" on the diagram.

The upper left drawing is the optimal condition. The rules as written communicate what the designer thinks they do, as borne out in playtest sessions. This is what designers strive for.

The lower left drawing is a little less than optimal. The rules as written are still fun! It's just that the designer didn't have much to do with it. Hey, good for the players. What happened here? Well, maybe the designer didn't really playtest and what she thought would be fun wasn't actually what turned out to be fun, but the rules were good enough at getting the fun that the players will never know. Expect huge arguments on the Internets between the players who are having fun and the idiot designer who is telling them their fun is wrongbadfun. "But that's not the right way to play!" "Well, the 'right way' is a steaming pile of poo and is no fun!"

The upper right is a little worse. The rules as written just aren't fun. Sure, the designer saw a fun game during her playtests, but then the players bought the game and it was a dud. What happened? Most likely, the designer failed to explain what was in her head. Expect to go to the designer's Internets forum space and say, "When I played, it sucked" and get a response like, "Well, did you do X, Y, and Z [that aren't in the rules]?" "Uh, no..." "Well, you should have known that." "Can I have my $19 back please?"

The bottom right is the worst. The designer knows what he wrote, she plays by the rules, and she knows the game isn't fun. But she sold it anyway.

None of this is saying that a player can't go monkey with the rules and make them fun. That's essentially changing the shape of the yellow box so that it overlaps with "fun." Maybe the designer even expects the players to do this during play (Gamma World -- dunno what edition -- is an example of a game that says, "You need to fill in stuff here"). Maybe it's perfectly fine for gamers to have to be armchair designers to have a good time. None of these diagrams address that.
Are you bold enough to reach for love?yeloson on April 10th, 2008 07:32 pm (UTC)
I wonder how often the worst case scenario -actually- happens, though?

Probably more bad design is probably either no playtesting, or failing to see how playtesting compares to actual play.
 Adam Drayadamdray on April 10th, 2008 07:35 pm (UTC)
Probably only very rarely, thank god! But if you were to go play an older version of Verge that was out on my web page, you'd be in that quadrant. I knew the rules didn't work but I published the game anyway (albeit as a broken playtest version with caveats).

It isn't bad design so much as incomplete design.
Are you bold enough to reach for love?yeloson on April 10th, 2008 08:08 pm (UTC)
There is a BIG difference between nonfunctional playtest rules vs. nonfunctional rules you pay for.

Part of the reason of sharing playtest rules is to get input, because maybe someone else can see how to make them work.

I can say I've encountered a few games recently where I've asked for advice and gotten the 20 things that should have been in the rules in the first place, which is irking when you spend $30-40 on it.
the_tall_man on April 10th, 2008 07:57 pm (UTC)
Take a look at the bottom left picture.

This might be harsh.

I suspect that most often, when something is off, it looks sort of like that - but the designers expectations, the fun of the game, and the text all partly overlap. So the fun stuff ends up off in some odd corner of the text, the bit the designer likes most, but didn't fully explain.

And the rest of the text? That's what we call "the standard stuff" - the stuff people feel obligated to put in their games.

 Adam Drayadamdray on April 10th, 2008 08:10 pm (UTC)
Alexander Williamszamiel on April 10th, 2008 08:04 pm (UTC)

I’d think the lower left situation is probably more likely the results of bad design but good playtesting if we’re talking about a game that actually sees light of day.

Ie, here’s the narrative:

The designer starts with an idea and some rules which, unfortunately for him, overlap only at one corner. He gets playtesters and they, thoughtfully, bang away and suggest things from their experience. They're not innoculated with the designer's Vision(tm)(c), so they push toward having fun with what they have, and report sensibly. The designer, not being a dink and realizing fun is more important than any Vision(tm)(c), go strongly with their suggestions until, on release, the game is different than his intent and expectation, but a damn solid rollicking good time.

In many ways, this may be the ideal situation. If the upper left describes your game as released, odds are good it didn’t have enough playtesting or did so in a very tightly constrained format or niche. Which may be what you want, but the flexibility of the results will be minimal. The Mountain Witch strikes me as this kind of a game, so intently focussed on what it is that it’s a perfect jewel for that specific purpose, but limited use in going beyond that.

Edited at 2008-04-10 08:04 pm (UTC)
 Adam Drayadamdray on April 10th, 2008 08:10 pm (UTC)
Okay, but my "Designer's Expectations" aren't "what the designer wants the game to do" but rather "what the designer thinks the game actually does in play." Does that change anything for you?
Alexander Williamszamiel on April 10th, 2008 09:06 pm (UTC)

Well, aside from not really being intent at that point …

I think we need to hone on what “actually does” means. How it interacts mechanically through the rules or how the rules affect the players? Those are very different things.

 Adam Drayadamdray on April 10th, 2008 10:26 pm (UTC)
What is "it" in "how it interacts mechanically through the rules"? The rules don't do anything without the players, so I suspect my answer is "how the rules affect the players," given those two choices.

Or, better, "what kind of play the players get out of the rules."
the_tall_man on April 10th, 2008 09:27 pm (UTC)
While this isn't quite what Adam was talking about?

It's still a damn good point entirely on it's own.
Raven Daegmorgangreyorm on April 10th, 2008 10:03 pm (UTC)
I think it is interesting that Zamiel's reaction is a perfect example of why the bottom-right area of the original diagram happens. The author writes something and thinks, "Clearly, this means such-and-so and will be interpreted this way." Then Player A reads the text and thinks, "Obviously, this means such-and-so and should be interpreted this way." (Exactly as happened with the diagram.)

In a game text, when the reader's interpretation of the text doesn't match what works for that game due one reason or another (poor explanation by author, or incorrect assumptions about play), and when their interpretation makes the game not-fun, then there is a problem.

I'm thinking of two obvious and extreme examples of this: someone who enjoys immersion trying to tackle a game that is written to require a large amount of metagame thinking to play, and still trying to immerse because he believes this activity is implied/supported by the text.

And a group carrying over the traditional "party"-mode into a game that does not support "party"-mode, or does not intend for there to be a party without some explicit social-contract/setting-support for the idea.
 Adam Drayadamdray on April 10th, 2008 10:27 pm (UTC)
Yes, agreed on all accounts. Good examples.