Monday, January 7, 2013

Well Designed For Who?*


It's well-designed.

Meaning what?

It reliably provides a certain experience.

To who? It didn't provide it to me.

Well....(thinks) most people.

Most people don't play RPGs, and of those, most of them haven't played this one. most people that experience....already? Aaaand...didn't get it with that other game? Aaaand who....


Here's the problem we have when we talk about "objectively good game design".

It isn't about providing a certain experience reliably.

Focused design is, at best, about:

Providing a certain experience reliably to a given audience.

Good game design, on the other hand, is about:

Providing any game tools the audience enjoys using to a given audience.

There's a difference because Focused Design assumes an audience so small and homogenous that you can actually reliably provide them an experience.
Easy Examples 

Let's take a look at a couple "successful" independent RPG products. Products that sold well in their categories and made money for their authors and won fabulous prizes.

Here's Dogs In The Vineyard. Its author says this:

"It's a game where you're a teenager with a gun and a book, and you're sent out to solve problems between adults that can't really be solved with either. If that sounds fun to you, you might enjoy the game, and if it doesn't, you won't."

So here we've got the experience it's supposed to provide and a description of an audience that it is supposed to provide that to. That audience seems to be very happy about it.

The experience is you're some western proto-fascist religious weirdo passing judgment on rural towns, the audience is amateur game designers and people who hang out on their forums who are into westerns and/or judgment and/or dealing with soap operatic moral issues in games and/or the kind of people who go to gaming conventions and see that game description and are like "Yeah, I'm on that".

How big that audience is or could potentially be is unclear, but it seems fairly true that within that audience those people are happy with that thing and get that thing out of it. He sold his copies. They don't complain much from what I've seen.

They are people I do not understand who want a thing I do not understand why anyone would want it, but they get it and are happy with it. If we define "good design" as giving the experience people expect to a defined group of people, it succeeds.

So then we got a book that sells about the same rate, my book, Vornheim: The Complete City Kit (I would love to use another book instead of my own for this example, but I needed something where I knew a lot about the sales figures and audience response from a different audience than Dogs.)

It provides a bunch of tools for making up an interesting, useful fantasy city in the middle of running an RPG to an audience that: 

1. Knows how to play an RPG
2. Has a ruleset already
3. Is ok with improvising content
4. Does not want to memorize a lot of content
5. Wants to run an open sandboxy campaign
6. Is ok with a few weird results mixed in
7. Is adults
8. Likes the tone set by the fairly dense, fairly inky artwork,
9. Plays older versions of D&D or is used to/good at converting on the fly to their system of choice
10. Is into the same kind of weird sword and sorcery fiction old and new that inspired it, and
11. ...probably reads a lot about games on-line and probably reads this blog

That's a very specific audience. But that audience seems to like it. It sells well and there are few complaints in my mailbox.

It provides that thing to that audience. Its tools are "well designed" in that sense.


Point is: both of these different products succeed not necessarily because they are objectively well-designed in any way, really. They succeed largely because they were very good at finding the audience that wanted them--mostly by capitalizing on social networks where people talk about games that were already there and telling those networks who their authors were and what they were about.

Change the audience and suddenly the experience changes completely. I played Burning Wheel--which is supposed to be a game of beliefs being challenged in epic struggles--and it came out as the funniest light-comedy game I ever saw.


Hard Examples (Mainstream Design)

Now here's the rub for bigger games--Vampire, RIFTS, Call of Cthulhu, D&D etc.

If we are judging whether they are "well designed" we have to take into account that both parts of the "focused design" equation are (by necessity and design) waaaaay more ambitious than what Vincent and I were going for.

Like with Vampire, the focused design brief pretty much has to be:

Provide tools for much any kind of adventure conceivable where you play a vampire in a contemporary world full of secret, hidden vampires to an audience consisting of anybody in the world who thinks playing a vampire in a world full of secret, hidden vampires is a good time and which has maybe seen Lost Boys or read Anne Rice and liked it.

The number of bases to cover is bigger, the audiences are bigger.

This is why people accusing games of "bad design" (unless they are specifically talking about like math inconsistencies or obvious one-fix problems, which is rare) consistently, when pressed, end up focusing on the marketing. The marketing seemed to them (a fraction of an audience) to promise a certain experience that it didn't deliver.

Point is: Since the marketing for Dogs In The Vineyard and Vornheim consists (by default) largely of its authors talking about games online and because the audience consists largely of people who read those things they said, it's really motherfucking easy for us to provide an expected experience to an audience who wants that expected thing. They know us and what we like.

If, on the other hand, your "what are we promising" is a painting of some thing happening and a tagline ("Chill: A Scary Game For Scary People") and your audience consists, essentially, of anyone who likes what's in that ad, (which is what all mainstream games have to deal with) it's much harder.

One obvious reason why is that suddenly your audience consists of people with mutually exclusive skillsets and needs.

Like, providing "Gritty, fast-paced adventure in an imaginative setting" to a group whose GM has great social skills and no math skills and providing "Gritty, fast-paced adventure in an imaginative setting" to a group whose GM has great math skills and no social skills requires two very different rulesets and assumptions. This is the Sword Of Obviousness hanging over every would-be-mainstream game design team.


No Default

I've heard people argue D&D Type IV is objectively better-designed because it was built along the focused-design principles that were invented for indie games: if the GM is bad you can just fall back on the default experience the rules-as-written provides (exciting, heroic combat using the powers on your sheet to play a cooperative combat-centric game where you fight balanced monsters and many noncombat challenges are resolved via an always-balanced skill challenge mechanic).

What they don't seem to get is that the rules-as-written do not provide that experience to everyone or necessarily even most people in the audience (because all groups are different and the audience for D&D is bigger than that for indie games) and/or that that default experience is not even something most groups necessarily want (because not everyone imagines exactly the same possibilities when they see a dragon in a dungeon). 

This audience-expansion is one thing the focused design crowd hasn't seemed to take into account yet--at least not en masse. It's way easier and makes more sense to do a focused design when the audience is itself focused. A lot of them seem kinda surprised they didn't like 4e: wait, I thought D&D was about fighting monsters in dungeons, 4e is the most fighting-monsters-in-dungeons-focused D&D yet!, focus is good!, why am I not enjoying this?

Just because you showed up with a sword and a spell to play D&D doesn't necessarily mean you have any interest in the kind of combat 4e's default-mode wants you to do.

And here's the rub with mainstream games: often that default, uncustomized experience is something most of the audience doesn't want and the design team knows that. The center is left empty on purpose.

OD&D was fairly up-front with the fact that you had to add your own stuff just to make the thing work at all.


There are people who look at a picture on the cover of a mainstream RPG and go "That is exactly what I want". I don't, in real life, know any of them. And yet my group consistently plays these mainstream games. Why? Because the fact that you gotta make stuff up and that most of the best content will be made up was part of the original design intent of the game. They are not recipes: they are grocery stores. Here's stuff: go make things.

Call of Cthulhu is full of rules I never use and the sample adventures in the book are things I would never play. Designwonks go "Isn't it then a poorly-designed game for you? Don't you want something more focused on the play you want" No. 90% of the things in that rulebook are just not for me-- they're for all the other Call of Cthulhu groups who play it like Hellboy or X Files or Deep Ones and Tommy Guns. And that's ok. That's what mainstream design does.

I have absolutely no hope that some magically sympathetic just-like-Zak guy will come along and write a horror game that is perfect for my group and I don't need them to. I have stats, SAN mechanics and % skills and I can make whatever I need out of that and so can about a jillion other people so we're good.

If the standard was "Reliably produces an adventure in a certain genre that I wanna play" then no game in the history of gaming has ever been "Well designed" so far as I can tell. Why? Because many people (including the game designers) are individuals. The design and content has to be tweaked to fit those individuals and the experience-desired has to be tweaked to give them a mood, a tone, an authorial voice that they are interested in. They need a tailored experience or they are bored.

This might even be most gamers. We don't know.


This is the rub:

Enthusiasts of focused design games point to games with no default experience hardwired in the center (or an experience they don't like or understand hardwired into the center) and say "this game doesn't deliver what it promises, it's poorly designed".

But this isn't so, because the game does not promise you can run it well without adding anything of your own because for that game's audience the idea that you could run a game well without adding stuff in yourself never turns out to be true no matter what game it is.

If you think any game can run even tolerably well without the players or GM adding something you might be right for you, but you are not in this game's target audience and so the it's "good design/bad design" equation can't be judged by what it gives you.


The Cost

Now I know from the internet that there are actually people in the world who look at a module and see a shiny, squarejawed paladin smacking a hunchbacked kobold with a +2 sword forever and think "YES, EXACTLY THAT!" and for them a design which has a "default experience" running up its spine that they can work off of is what they will consider "good". "Why can't we have Mr Default Paladin Smacking Mr Default Orc right there and you can have your crazy expert-GM arty fringe lunacy on top of that?"

It is no small task to build that "default experience" into a game. It takes up space and time that could be devoted to other stuff and that you have to flip past in the books and in the statblocks and in the character generation session and in the graphic design and in the system itself. Building a fighter and a thief who mathematically balance out the same way in combat takes a lot of design space to undo if you don't like that (trust me I've tried). It is not necessarily a thing with no cost. So if the people who want that spine are not in the target audience, there are fine reasons to leave it out. 

If someone wants to build a game with a default spine for whatever slice of the audience actually enjoys default things but that also provides no significant hurdles to the slice of the audience that cannot enjoy a game they have not significantly customized they should try. They should try and should know that it has never successfully been done before but I hope they succeed.

*P.S. Prescriptive Grammar nerds fuck off.


Unknown said...

I had to scroll all the way to the bottom to make sure the asterisk was directed at me. It was, so I am fucking off :)

Matthew Adams said...

I guess I have been very lucky in the games group I belong to. We very rarely used to play any commercial rpg, not because they were bad, just that we were busy making up our own games with their own rule system. We learnt that balance wasn't that important, that system, no matter how clever it was, didn't matter and that the only thing that made a game worthwhile was a good DM and hanging out with friends. Of course, that doesn't mean that all systems were equal, or that they were good at providing the DM and the players with the tools needed to play and have fun, but the majority of it came down to the skill of the DM and the willingness of the players

Unknown said...

Great post. This is why I read this blog, for insightful and thoughtful comments like this.

two_fishes said...

The RPG fora could use a lot more of you and a lot less angry bombast.

semiprometheus said...

FWIW, my definition of "well-designed" is the same for software and games: so simple, consistent, and clearly written that I can easily take it apart and put it back together to do exactly what I want. By that criterion Call of Cthulhu, GURPS, FATE, and Basic D&D are well-written and D&D Types I-IV are not. Tunnels & Trolls 7.5 is a borderline case: it's easy to house-rule but the text is inconsistent and poorly organized so there's parts I *have* to house-rule whether I want to or not.

Revenant said...

To me, "good game design" means that the actual rules -- the "game" -- facilitate the kind of play the game is trying for.

If you constantly find yourself having to ignore rules because they get in the way of the game, the game is badly designed. If you don't, it is well-designed.

Zak Sabbath said...

That reads suspiciously like you didn't read the thing you're commenting on.

Rafu said...

The problem with posts like this, Zak, is not the content. The problem with posts like this is that, through a sufficiently long time of trolling away part of your own readers based on perceived affiliations, you have selected a sufficiently narrow audience to preach to - made of people who all already agree with you in principle - instead of constructively engaging your supposed "counterpart", listening about as much as you speak, and learning that you actually agree with other people on many accounts were you stubbornly believe them to disagree with you. Good luck with your new church preacher career.

anarchist said...

Are the "focused design people" that you're talking about the Forge / Story-Games people?

Zak Sabbath said...

some are

Matthew Schmeer said...

"If someone wants to build a game with a default spine for whatever slice of the audience actually enjoys default things but that also provides no significant hurdles to the slice of the audience that cannot enjoy a game they have not significantly customized they should try."

Two guys did back in the early 70s. Their names were Gygax and Arneson. I think they succeeded.

Zak Sabbath said...

If you ever met anyone who played 0D&D without customizing it or rulings-not-rules it I would loooooooove to meet them.

Even they--at the time--outright stated that you needed to make judgment calls and customize the rules.

Zak Sabbath said...

Dave and I disagree on how to handle any number of things, and both of our campaigns differ from the "rules" found in DandD. If the time ever comes when all aspects of fantasy are covered and the vast majority of its players agree on how the game should be played, DandD will have become staid and boring indeed. Sorry, but I don't believe that there is anything desirable in having various campaigns playing similarly to one another. DandD is supposed to offer a challenge to the imagination and to do so in many ways. Perhaps the most important is in regard to what the probabilities of a given situation are. If players know what all of the monster parameters are, what can be expected in a given situation, exactly what will happen to them if they perform thus and so, most of the charm of the game is gone. Frankly, the reason I enjoy playing in Dave Arneson's campaign is that I do not know his treatments of monsters and suchlike, so I must keep thinking and reasoning in order to "survive". Now, for example, if I made a proclamation from on high which suited Mr. Johnstone, it would certainly be quite unacceptable to hundreds or even thousands of other players. My answer is, and has always been, if you don't like the way I do it, change the bloody rules to suit yourself and your players. DandD enthusiasts are far too individualistic and imaginative a bunch to be in agreement, and I certainly refuse to play god for them -- except as a referee in my own campaign where they jolly well better toe the mark.

Anonymous said...

"If someone wants to build a game with a default spine for whatever slice of the audience actually enjoys default things but that also provides no significant hurdles to the slice of the audience that cannot enjoy a game they have not significantly customized they should try."

Do you think that D&D Next is at least 'kind of' trying to tackle just that? A game with a lean set of default rules but with the ability to customize?

Zak Sabbath said...

I don't think so: It is explicitly a "rulings not rules" design.
There is no mention of there being procedures to fall back on if you can't handle that.
I'm ok with that, but some people aren't.

two_fishes said...

I see Zak's point in the blog post, and find that I agree with it to some degree. But I wouldn't have necessarily agreed with him. I'm not sure I agree with him entirely here. He makes a point that I've seen before and reacted to badly, because it was stated in angry and insulting rhetoric. So with at least one person (me) he's not just preaching to the choir and has made me more receptive to an idea I've previously rejected.

Matthew Schmeer said...

"Even they--at the time--outright stated that you needed to make judgment calls and customize the rules."

And thus my point. The default spine *requires* customization to work. That's the freaking genius of it. It requires agency AND ownership of that agency.

Zak Sabbath said...

Then you misunderstand what I mean by "spine".

What I mean is: this idea many people have that _even without any customization_ a game will default to a certain experience that is desirable. That's a spine.

The ethic you and Gary describe above (which I love and subscribe to) is the opposite of that: without your input, there is no decent "default experience".

And me having to write that makes me think I must've done a terrible job writing this blog entry because that was largely my point.

Telecanter said...

I almost wrote a post myself a few weeks ago about contexts. I agree completely about different audiences and different contexts requiring different things. I even realized that simple things like being a nomadic DM gaming in other people's homes pushes me toward certain design goals like simplicity.

I would propose that in general games would do better to provide tools to help DMs handle creation and game situations rather than trying to provide a bunch of pre-made rulings. If only because there are so many possibilities to try and cover.

anarchist said...

Who are the rest?

Zak Sabbath said...

Anyone still clinging to the idea that a game's rules need to be focused around a chosen "core" experience. I know 4e obsessives who think that, I know GURPS obsessives who think that, I know rabid 3e people who think that...


anarchist said...

Surely someone who thinks every role-playing game should provide a single core experience has missed the point of GURPS?

Zak Sabbath said...

and life

DiceChucker said...

What responsibility does the game or game designer have for it's audience?

Zak Sabbath said...

No more than any other author: be ethical in your business dealings, do the best work you possibly can for you.

DiceChucker said...

Hmm... I don't think that fits. The author is not delivering a partially constructed work. I think it's fair to say we expect a novel (or any other artistic work) to be complete.

However, if I get your meaning, as gamers we should understand the game we purchased is meant to be modified to our tastes. In this case, the author to game designer analogy doesn't fit, unless the book we're talking about is a cookbook (which may actually be a working analogy).

Zak Sabbath said...

If the author can cook from that recipe, it's complete enough for them.
"Complete" is often a kinda bullshit word in game design. What people usually mean is "enough tools to get me all the way through my own very specific-to-me particular issues running the game" rather than "all the tools the author needed to run the game".

DiceChucker said...

Okay, last question... do you view/evaluate/judge art the same as games, or is everything ultimately subjective?

Zak Sabbath said...

Everything in the arts is subjective. You can only help people reach a defined goal (that's what you do when you teach art--they define a goal, you help them reach it). If they don't define a goal or (as most audiences) don't care about the author's goal--just what you get out of it is the only meaningful content for you.

The rest is for accountants to worry about.

DiceChucker said...

Very cool. I think I get where you're coming from now.

Unknown said...

"If the time ever comes when all aspects of fantasy are covered and the vast majority of its players agree on how the game should be played, DandD will have become staid and boring indeed. Sorry, but I don't believe that there is anything desirable in having various campaigns playing similarly to one another" - Mister Smith

Thank you.

I would like to add 'cult-like' to staid and boring.

Zak Sabbath said...

that was Gary, not me

Unknown said...

** "..." - Mister Gary Gygax, brought to my attention by Mister Smith

Jeremy said...

Sometimes I read your blog and feel as if I am reading half of an argument. My knowledge of and interest in the Forge is zero so perhaps that is what I am missing. Does not increase my interest in learning anything about the Forge. I don't suspect you would encourage me to investigate it.

However, several comments and points in some of your recent posts motivated me to obtain and read the OD&D books. I found it richly rewarding and I believe I understand some of your points better. I want to thank you for that.

Zak Sabbath said...

I think the "half-an-argument" thing's inevitable when someone's reading any idea about RPGs in general.

The only way to avoid it is to write a huge scholarly overview/essay which people don't usually write unless they're getting paid or to watch these arguments as they occur on Google + or some other forum.

Takeda said...

I agree with your post Zak. I've played a ton of games and many were built for a very specific style and genre ... and how dare you try to drift from Canon! ... I got tired of that.

Almost every game I play in now is pretty heavily home-brewed aside from one ... any game I run is heavily home-brewed. I use Savage Worlds as my starting place ... it has no spine ... just a flayed open system that you can pick at to run any genre ...

If you want something that will take you down a specific path and hand-holding there are settings you can get but the core is cheap and easy.

I've been flying by the seat of my pants as a GM for 34-years now and it feels great!