2010-03-18 : First game theory, second game theory

First-game theory tears down the distinctions that conventional wisdom has built up between things that are, in fact, similar. It bares the field of its accumulated nonsense. It shows the social bedrock upon which you build a game's design.

At this point you've been playing games for years or decades, and you want to design a game but you never have. You have insights, and lots and lots of experiences, good and bad, to base them upon. So encountering first-game theory is liberating. It shows you that you can design a game to do exactly what you want it to, to express these insights you've been developing unexpressed.

What's called for next, after you've designed your first game and as you're beginning to design your second, is NOT a further tearing down, NOR a fixed attention upon the bedrock. Those are liberating, and now you're at liberty. No, it wasn't the theory that designed your first game, it was your insights that did. What's called for next is a building up of insights, your own and others', into a working body.

So when I say I've been doing second-game theory, that's what I mean. "'System is the process by which the group decides what happens' is the foundation from which you begin to design, not the sum-all of design," I've been saying. Yes, all rpg rules are social, all rpg rules are about what should I contribute and how should I treat others' contributions, yes, yes. So, we've been doing that for years, time to bring it on. What should you contribute? How should you treat others' contributions?

1. On 2010-03-18, Rafu said:

This is seriously important.


2. On 2010-03-18, Ben Lehman said:

Okay, manwut? How is that not also first game design?



3. On 2010-03-18, misuba said:

First-game and second-game? Nah. Sounds like just plain "first theory" and "second theory" to me. This applies to everything.


4. On 2010-03-19, Alexander D. said:

When I first started thinking about game design, I railed against conventional things, old things. I sought out new things, different things.

Now, I look at the old things, reinterpret them, re-use what I can, and blend it with the new.

Tearing things down isn't good enough for me, personally, without at least looking at it.

Is this anything the same, or am I on a different page here? I think my thing is a different thing, but they may be related.


5. On 2010-03-20, Rafu said:

On the other hand, this also demonstrates how burning everything to the ground was the necessary thing to do, before any kind of rebuilding on the ashes could begin.


6. On 2010-03-22, ThoughtBubble said:

The first game I wrote was because my friends and I were sick of the other games available. "Hit Points suck! I hate how random a D20 is! I hate how unimaginable these magic systems are! I hate how I can't make a Wizard who is also a circus acrobat!" So I made a game with no preset skill list, no HP, no classes, and tons of judgement calls. I did it right there, in the living room, at a party. I knew what I wanted, so I just built it. I didn't know why or how it would work, just that it was what I wanted.

With my current project though, I'm reflecting a lot. "Is having Manliness as a resource really going to cause the game about being Manly?" I re-wrote a chunk of the game when I understood the sub-systems post. I've read up on pacing systems and thought about player narration based on other games I've played.

I couldn't have made that first game worrying about all the whys and hows.


7. On 2010-03-22, Anna K said:

I'm with Ben. I've read this several times over several days, and I'm not grokking the distinction.


8. On 2010-03-22, Teataine said:

I think, and correct me if I'm wrong, Vincent, the distinction is that you write your first game out of dissatisfaction with what you know. A kind of heartbreaker really. You play D&D, you realize you don't like a ton of stuff about it (like hit-points), and you tear it all down. You write a game to do it differently, you write a game that's kinda like D&D but has no HP or maybe you're more radical and write a game that's NOTHING like D&D. And you deconstruct and deconstruct until you hit the point where you realize the bottom line is that RPG rules are social manipulations, everything else is optional.

But that alone makes poor design, you need to rebuild now. There's no need to throw out hit points anymore. Instead, you recognise them for what they are: a pacing mechanic, and you can build upon that insight, you can now write a new game *with* hit points, but without using them "because D&D does" or write a game without them without rallying against them "because D&D uses them" - there is no more need to emulate or destroy, you've got your bedrock and all the lego pieces you want to play with, start building.

If you could do that with your first game, good for you.


9. On 2010-03-22, marknau said:

First-stage game design is realizing that not all houses are single-story, 4-bedroom, 2-bath, and made only of bricks.

Second-stage game design is finding out which combinations of layouts and materials seem to produce satisfying houses.

Thrid-stage game design is refining which materials and details of layout you will use when making a particular type of house you've found to be generally satisfying.


10. On 2010-03-22, Vincent said:

Overall, the first games I see are sharp and solidly-grounded; this isn't about heartbreakers at all. Like, take what Nathan Russel says down here in the show of hands thread:

"My 'success' with Space Rat was more accidental than by design. Since then I have come to better understand what I was doing (let alone what others were doing!). I think it has made it harder to design subsequent games, but am not yet able to articulate why..."

I don't think his success was accidental! Far, far from it. His story seems like the common one to me: a person designs a striking, insightful first game, as if by accident, but no matter how much inspiration they have for a second game, they can't seem to make it work. All the design decisions that were self-evident for the first game turn into no-solution problems for the second.

My proposal is that the reveal-the-bedrock theory contributes to those "as if by accident" successful first games, but it does so by liberating you to express your preexisting insights into roleplaying as a practice. What it doesn't do is spark new insights.

You should all know that I haven't thought this out very thoroughly, though, and I haven't been observing very carefully. I'll cheerfully defer to anybody who's thought or observed more clearly than I have.


11. On 2010-03-22, Roger said:

It's a bit weird.  I think of it in the context of when people began to make the shift from astrology to astronomy, or from alchemy to chemistry.

The first required step is the revolution; a break from the past that makes it clear to people: yes, I know this looks a lot like astrology, and yes, I accept that there is a subset of the accumulated knowledge that holds true for my new purposes, but this 'astronomy' really is a new thing on its own that I shall now proceed with exploring.

I'm not entirely sure that's what Vincent means, but it's what makes sense to me.


12. On 2010-03-22, Emily said:

Are you talking about becoming aware of and applying the insights that one might instinctively find when becoming newly creatively expressive (with your first game)? Or are you thinking that we as a whole, need to move beyond the insights we've had and move to new levels of synthesis and analysis?

Playing new kinds of games has helped spark new insights for me. Games have definitely arisen out of things like exposure to jeep.


13. On 2010-03-23, jaywalt said:

Isn't this what's called "second album syndrome" in music? or "Second novels"?  It does seem to be a common practice, but I think it's wrong to apply it as some kind of near-universal.

I mean, you did Kill Puppies before Dogs, right? And there are plenty of designers who've released a good first game but are going on to make even better or more cutting/insightful later games.


14. On 2010-03-23, Simon C said:

Dogs in in many ways a better game than kill puppies, but man, puppies has got some MAD insights going on.  It's totally raw and bleeding insight all slopping around the place. Dogs is a nice game, and I love the shit out of the design, but if I wanted to point to a game as a piece of expressionist art, it'd be kill puppies for satan for sure.


15. On 2010-03-23, Joshua A.C. Newman said:

Vincent, can you give some examples of designers who have done this effectively?


16. On 2010-03-23, Vincent said:

Done which effectively?


17. On 2010-03-23, kaare berg said:

I can realte to this. When I began to dabble in design I was all about the forge and system does matter. And I look back at my first attempts to build games and at what I produce now. And there is a major difference.

And the biggest difference is how my perception of how the underlying structures of the games work. Or the second stage theory. This also reflects how the norwegian theory scene has gradually changed. Where we once were two diamtriaclly opposed side (namly me versus those cursed Holmestrandian hippies) we are now looking to each other for inspiration and insight.

Which now got me pushing towards my third stage of understanding, where I am now building more intutivly than systematically again. Maybe because I have internalised the previous stages, or maybe because I don't know what I am doing .... again.


18. On 2010-03-24, Shane said:

Charlie Stross once made the point that we expect writers to produce a novel every year or three, all up to the standard of their first one, but that first novel is made of about 10-15 years of collected ideas.


19. On 2010-03-25, Joshua A.C. Newman said:

VincentDone which effectively?

Um... I... don't know?

How about this: can you give an actual play example? I don't really understand if you're (pick one)

a) making an observation
b) making a recommendation

If it's a), what did you observe? Can you give an example of someone who's built up their insights from their first game to their second? (Other than yours ??a theory that only describes one's own work isn't a very useful theory.)

If it's b), is the recommendation to not start again from scratch? (viz. Shane's comment about Stross)

Either way, I have opinions, but they probably agree with yours.


20. On 2010-03-25, Tim Ralphs said:

Hah, heartbreakers are made with zeroth game theory. I take it you're counting Dogs in the Vineyard as your first game here Vincent, rather than Kill Puppies?

In terms of examples, I'd point at Timothy Kleinert.


21. On 2010-03-25, Joshua A.C. Newman said:

You mean Mexican Standoff? Or his Final Fantasy thing?


22. On 2010-03-25, Emily said:

kaare: thesis, antithesis, synthesis?

It reminds me of what I've heard from some polyglots. Learning the first new tongue is very difficult. Then the second adds new dimensions, but then the third on you are putting things in places in your mind already created by the earlier work.

Today Eppy & I were talking about a game idea we started on yesterday. Already it feels like something we could try out, and can imagine working. Partly because many of the elements we've seen in play in other games, and we can imagine how they would work together.

The second game, at least for me, was one of the hardest. There were so many layers of fear that I couldn't do it again, or that the first was just a fluke.


23. On 2010-03-26, Matthijs said:

I can't relate this directly to my own experience. I started designing games almost as soon as I started playing - house ruling Fighting Fantasy when I was eleven, designing a fantasy heartbreaker which I xeroxed at school and sold to my friends when I was fifteen. Several more games during my teens. But most of these were derivative, improvements on existing game ideas, or based on insights I'd read about elsewhere.

One of the first games with real insights of my own which I tried to implement was my Earthsea campaign, which turned into Archipelago about ten years later. But there were other games before and after that. Few felt finished.

I do feel like I'm trying to create a working body of insight, though. It's based on ritual, intuition, piggybacking on non-conscious processes and social dynamics. I'm not sure if I'm able to articulate what I'm doing. Like Kaare says at the end: "Maybe because I have internalised the previous stages, or maybe because I don't know what I am doing".


24. On 2010-03-28, ndp said:

Personally I feel like each successive game is a new first-game that's building on a separate set of insights (personal and community), but I'm totally paralyzed trying to get to the second-game stage for any of those sets of insights.


25. On 2010-03-28, Josh W said:

When reading your post I noticed some similarities to how Christopher Alexander talks about design; if design is thought of as "creating a form that fits", then it's often easier to consider it from a negative perspective; as the absence of all the standard irritations.

This is similar to carving a statue; you work in with your negative constraints, blocking out possibilities in order to end up with a finished form.

But once you have that, you can generalise from it; you can look at the form you've made and sort of expand it in new dimensions, so a single sculpture becomes a family of sculpture changed in some dimension, while hopefully retaining it's hard-won advantages.

You can try the same with other forms you like, trying to bring bits from games or music in to try making a new working form.

Theory based on irritation will talk in terms of damage, incompatibility, lack of fun and disaster, (if only in a sort of surprised "it actually worked!" way) and theory based on analogy will pull in examples from existing working games or other pieces of entertainment/art, and talk in terms of the currently hidden kinds/levels of fun you can imagine.

Now there's a lot of me in that, but the interesting thing I notice is that as you get more established as a player designer, failures and irritations can become more disconnected from each other, perhaps because they are less common (you're hopefully playing more good games, or why are you designing? :P ) or because the failures are kept on a game-specific playtesting basis. Both of those can go together too, as better average games can reduce people's patience with awful playtest results.

Whatever the reason, you have to slowly work more and more by analogy and pattern, and hopefully you have more good stuff to work with.

That's my take on your first game/second game division.


26. On 2010-04-03, Joel said:

My own experience is an interesting case, because my first game was made for a design contest, so I was working off of particular creative prompts, not necessarily doing what was from the bottom of my heart of hearts. I ended up with a game that I like, but is more of a "hmm, that's interesting" experiment then a liberating statement.

My second game has much more of that feeling for me. I'm designing where my heart is, and doing a whole lot of field-baring ("No dice! Just beads in a bag! And no success/failure, just positive and negative experience! And no, you can't play with just however many, there are three distinct roles and that is FINAL!"). And I feel that yes, I have a solid game that I can play joyfully and share with confidence.

Maybe this maps to your framework, Vincent, in the sense that "first game" is a particular experience and process that you go through, and I just happened to go through it with what is technically my second game? In that case you could think of them as my 0th and 1st game. I do feel like The Dreaming Crucible is my real "first" in a way, since that's where I really get down to business and zero in on what I truly WANT with design and play.



27. On 2010-04-04, Josh W said:

Hmm, looks like I missed something out that is important in what your talking about, which makes me think that what I referred to might be a different element of the learning process:

Sometimes when looking at similar games, you can have an idea of blazing simplicity, some theory like "rpgs are all about structuring social relations" or "rpgs are experiments of identity" or "rpgs are a way to come to terms with failure or compromise" or something like that.

Now they're more than a simple statement, because in your head, because you really get them, they are mixed up with loads of moving parts, potential designs and ways of making them, images of learning curves or symbolic structures or traffic lights and roundabouts for different interests.

But when you've got that idea, that big flying structure that they all seem to be hanging off, (or maybe this root of the tree they all are a part of) it's easy to just dig into that, and make generic games of that kind, dull games that somehow don't do the same as that older game because they are missing that unique identity that the first game had.

In other words, it's easy to think that because they are all _____ they are only _____, and ignore the contribution of the unique things in each game to making it awesome.

Now some of those unique things might form a new big theme, and you'll then end up with two big overlapping structures, or they may stay like "this thing worked in that situation, but I don't know how to make it work again", but regardless, those extra things will still add to the quality of the game.

How's that relate to my earlier stuff about forms and analogies? I suppose it's about being open to pulling in new ideas, and being more adventurous:

Daring to make games that don't just put the same basic core in a new context, but to make games that work for unique and interesting reasons, that may be a dead end in terms of future game design, or might open up new avenues.

Part of that is daring to push into wilds you avoided when cutting down to your stable core, in the hope that out there you will find new islands of stability, and maybe a greater understanding of what made the original core so good.


28. On 2010-04-07, kaare berg said:


That sound so formal. It has been a ore organic process where the theory behind why I am doing things this or that way really don't matter, just the effect of why that rule is there, and why that isn't a rule but a recomendation, and this here is just an advice.

I think the whole thing is so internalised that I no longer ponder it. But at the same time I have this thing about the next step.

Aaaargh, wish I really could put the finger on what I am trying to get at. Now it is just me repeating myself to boredom.


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