2011-01-25 : Social Context and Design Scales

Social Context:

When you design a game, (a) design it for someone, and (b) design it to give them something. The closer the match, the better you fill that design space - that is, your design fits easily into the lives of people who want it, and it gives them something they respond to - the more they'll recognize and the better they'll seize upon your game.

Design Scales:

What are we doing right now? What are we doing tonight? What are we doing over the course of the game?

When you design a game, you're not only designing the answers to these questions, but even more importantly you're designing the relationships between the answers to these questions. How does what we're doing right now build into what we're doing over the course of the game?

There are two crucial considerations here. First is: is there an obvious link between my choices right this second and why I'm playing the game? In your game, you want it to be obvious how the most immediate-term play relates to the longest-term play: in Chess, I move my pieces on the board because I have to arrange them so to checkmate your king. The link between which piece should I move? To where? and Ultimately, I want to checkmate your king is plain as day.

At the same time, the second crucial consideration: you want robust and interesting barriers between. In Chess, each of my pieces can move only in its own particular way, and my opponent is also constantly moving HER pieces. There's no single winning move, no easy analysis; it's the barriers that give the game its depth. Long-term play is built of immediate-term choices over time; it doesn't simply collapse to a single choice.

So let's talk some game design, yeah?

Mishandling a game's barriers makes a broken game, that should be pretty clear. If there WERE a single winning move in Chess, or no possible winning move - broken. Roleplaying games with barrier problems don't usually make it out of internal playtesting. We'd have to go look at unplaytested first stabs - contest entries, for instance - to find some. Or, y'know, talk about Travis' partially cybered physical adept with a smartbow in 1st Edition Shadowrun.

But what about mishandling the first crucial consideration, the links between design scales? I propose that THAT is common, wicked common, even in playtested and published games, and that it's the single most common mismatch between a game's design and its presumed target audience.

If you hope to reach a certain target audience with your game, and your game works great in internal playtesting, but your target audience isn't seizing upon your game the way you hoped, then:

(a) You've misjudged the space in their lives for your game, offering them instead a game that doesn't fit into their social context; or...

(b) You've misjudged what they want from your game, offering them instead something they don't respond to; and either way...

(c) The culprit is, most likely, the link between what are my choices right this second? and what am I trying to do here overall? I bet you ten dollars that you've flubbed one, the other, or especially the link between them.

There's my proposal! Examples when I get the chance. Meanwhile, any thoughts or questions?

1. On 2011-01-25, Vincent said:

Oh! By pure coincidence, there's some shining analysis of precisely this topic happening at the Forge, featuring one of my games, as we speak: [Poison'd] Trying to understand Currency and Reward Systems.

"Reward system" is the Big Model's way of saying "the link between the most immediate-term and the longest-term play."


2. On 2011-01-26, Larry said:

Everything here is pretty clear, except for

a) Inside joke about Travis' Shadowrun guy
b) Could you expand on point (c)? I think I get it, but maybe not quite


3. On 2011-01-26, Gregor said:

Just to clarify: "What are we doing over the course of the game?" is what we (used to) call CA, right?

I'd love to see those examples.


4. On 2011-01-26, Marco said:

I have some fairly complex thoughts on this—but I'm not sure that the discussion is in keeping with the Anyway rules. So I'll ask:

(a) If I have more to say than I think I can easily say here do you want to hear it on my blog's 'rpg' tag?

(b) If I challenge some of the /core/ precepts is that the sort of thing you want here or does that violate the You Are Not Safe Here posting agreement?

I'll say for the record that I do find this very cogent and well stated. I don't have any problem with the tone or even the conclusions. What I question is the scope (i.e. that this is true for all or even a majority of RPGs) and that the concept of a "target" audience is well conceived unless you mean something like a /very narrow/ subset of role-players (something like: people who want games designed with extremely clear mission statements and who will have a sub-optimal experience if they don't get them).

So my comments aren't a slam on the expression or the basic idea, just its universality and whether it represents a specific school of game design or should be applied to all game design.



5. On 2011-01-26, Vincent said:

Larry: In 1st Edition Shadowrun, a partially cybered physical adept with a smartbow, just because of how the game's different initiative, damage, armor and attack rules worked, could just kill anybody anytime. Not being able to just kill anybody anytime was a barrier between what are my choices now? and what is are we doing in this game? - so playing Travis' partially cybered physical adept with a smartbow was like having a superqueen in Chess who could move to any square she wanted. It collapsed the long-term game down to "oh. I kill him." "Oh. Checkmate again."

More on point (c) coming! Point (c) is the whole point.

Gregor: Good question! Nope! Creative Agenda (which we still call Creative Agenda) is long-since given by the time we're talking about this stuff.

What are we doing over the course of the game? We're playing young men and women with books and guns who travel from town to town dealing with their crimes and trying to help them, and seeing how they themselves cope with what they see and do. Or else we're taking turns playing protagonist and antagonist in closely-related short stories defined by the intersections of cool sf shocks and social issues we're all interested in.

Creative Agendas underlie them all, but what do we do in this game? has a unique and specific answer game by game.


6. On 2011-01-26, Vincent said:

Marco: (a) Sure! Drop a link here, if that's what you decide to do.

(b) Oh, sure, go ahead.

But, without having seen your points, I bet I'm not even saying what you'd object to.

Here's what I'm saying, for instance: some people want a tightly-focused game with clear boundaries and mission statement; some don't. If you design a tightly-focused game with clear boundaries and mission statement, but expect people who don't want that to seize upon it, you've misjudged your target audience. (Same for every other possible design variable.)

If I hope to reach a million typical gamers with my game, I'd BETTER design a game that (a) fits into their lives, and (b) gives them something (or somethings) that they want and respond to. I can't expect to reach them by giving them what, like, I WISH they wanted, or what I think they SHOULD want, or a game that they don't recognize as a game, or can't figure out how to play, or don't WANT to play, or can't find friends to play with.

So that's all I'm saying about target audiences. I'm pretty sure it's well-founded! I think the idea of "I want everybody everywhere to like this game!" vs "I want Meg and people like her to like this game!" vs "I want people who had my same love-hate relationship with Shadowrun to like this game!" vs "I want to steal D&D's entire audience!" is a legit one.

I'm pretty sure that the idea of "if you really hope to reach the audience you hope to reach, you'd better start by designing a game they'll want and play" holds more-or-less universally across rpg designs too. The exceptions would be games that can reach people without fitting into those people's lives or giving them any of the things they want. I can't see there being many!

I may be pre-misguessing your objections, though, so I'm going to stop now.


7. On 2011-01-26, Marco said:

That's actually a pretty good clarification and you're right—I don't disagree with what you've said in that perspective. I do know for a fact that some people, perhaps a lot, do want tightly focused games and that within that category you certainly need to speak to them.

So, no, given those qualifiers, I don't think I disagree with anything. My thoughts were more around the ideas that:

.- I don't think everyone wants a tightly focused game in the way I think it's meant here (although, as I said, clearly a lot of people do).

.- I suspect that a good deal of mission statements will have multiple "correct" interpretations where the specific implementation of the game designer only meets one. This is because mission statements usually aren't formal (that is, they use English or some other language rather than being a tightly structured expression of some sort) and they are not (usually, because we are not, by-in-large a marketing/demographic driven industry) derived from external analysis but rather by the game designer's perspective.

That, above, put another way is this: big companies with target-market segments target those markets and 'what they want' from a whole lot of sample data and test-cases and focus groups* and stuff like that. In other words, they know the target-market exists because they can see it out there and observe its behavior.

"People with the same love-hate relationship with Shadowrun" may or may not be a real target-market in the same way that it's meant in more formal business-speak. Certainly "D&D's audience" is (as I'm sure we'd all agree) a hugely fractured thing if it's a 'thing' at all.

But I don't think my observations are especially controversial here so I'm back to just reading along :)

* Everyone knows focus groups suck.


8. On 2011-01-26, Gregor said:

Ah, ok. I think get it.

Because of "what the target audience *wants*" I was confusing "what are we doing" with "what's rewarding". And "over the course of play" with "during a cycle of play".

What are we doing is simply what we are doing. CA would be why we find it satisfying.

Does that make sense?


9. On 2011-01-26, Troy_Costisick said:

Vincent, is what you're talking about here addressed- at least somewhat- by Mo's socket theory?


10. On 2011-01-27, Vincent said:

Marco: Cool.

Gregor, Troy: You're going to hate me, but no, not so much.

GNS, Mo's socket theory, the RGFA Threefold, and (um) the GENder model, and Levi's thing about fiero, pathos et al, and there's another one I should remember but I'm undercaffeinated yet, and all the rest - they're sources of insight for the designer, and that's all they are. Once you've had your three insights, they contribute nothing more.

This is Clyde Rhoer's insight; I learned it from him at GenCon '10.

GNS etc. may be useful in various ways outside of rpg design too, of course. But that's not what I'm talking about.

Next up: Point (c), which is my point!


11. On 2011-01-27, Alex Abate Biral said:

"Reward system" is the Big Model's way of saying "the link between the most immediate-term and the longest-term play.

Vincent, I know I am just late and most of the other readers had already caught on to this, but I find this phrase very insightful. Whenever I though of Reward Systems before, I would tentatively think of "stuff that people find fun for itself". After reading Burning Wheel, I even understood that the rewards were there to make the system move, to drive the play forward. But my understanding was still all mucky. Yet, this little phrase just made me realize the real point of the reward system, making it all clear. I really don't know how you manage to come with these clear insights time after time.

I have a few more questions, but I will wait till you explain point c more thoroughly.


12. On 2011-01-28, Troy_Costisick said:

Heya Vincent,

I don't hate you one bit!  A "no" answer is just as helpful as a yes.  Thank you for taking the time to elaborate.  I definately appreciate it ;)




13. On 2011-01-28, Gregor said:

Vincent it's cool. I get what you're saying. I've listened to that conversation with Clyde two or three times since GenCon.

I could go in depth into what I'm having problems with, but maybe somewhere else.


14. On 2011-01-31, Josh W said:

Vincent, you want to move from the previous theory discussions to more focused discussion on design right? I agree with that intention to some extent, but I wonder if that motive is coming out in your depiction of design; I don't think that an actual process of design just goes "existing rpg theory"->design.

Personally, I've had three insights for a bit, and reading your post about "things that had no relevence" and testing it out, I found a way that using the rpga threefold idea could maybe make my game better. Time will tell whether it was a red herring, but I wouldn't discount that stuff by default.

Ok on what you were actually talking about, the barriers thing is good up to a point, because strategic goals "What I as a player am aiming towards over the next few games" and the game's native narrative structure "what I as game designer want the players to tend towards doing over a few games" can be very different things.

The first is about barriers, getting in player's way in a way that gets them to engage with something, the second is about build-up; references across sessions, and getting players to recognise stuff and it's changes.

People don't have to have "game-to-game goals that the game blocks" for this to happen.

Persistence of objects is sort of assumed as default, but really isn't for games by people with chaotic lives; you need to write down that town if people are going back there, write down elements of that character if someone is going to keep her in his mind semi-consistently (which is needed for change, otherwise they'll keep defaulting to recreating the same first impressions of the character that came to mind, like groundhog day).

Groundhog repetition can be interesting in it's own way, as players going at the same circumstance (especially with a random element) will usually be able to play it differently each time, depending on how rigid the game is:

It can have it's own "what are we doing" thing, like
"we're trying to find a way to turn a no win situation into a win",
"we're each trying to beat the person who beat us last week in a way that is not cheap, so we can gloat over the intervening week",
"we're trying to get better at potraying this in a way we feel is authentic",
"we're trying to find a way to square our enjoyment of this with rejecting it's dodgy bits",
or "we're just releasing stress and chilling together with our standard activity".

Of course, all of those probably require memory to work properly, but the kind of memory required is the sort of thing I'm talking about.

One simple form of persistance to illustrate it; you have a game with random elements, and when you come to an entry on a random table at least two players remember playing before, you reroll. This system is about producing shared experiences between the players and finding ways to make certain ideas distinctive, amongst whatever else it's doing.


15. On 2011-01-31, Vincent said:

Dang, that thread between Ron and Steve about Poison'd is really stealing my wind. While I'm trying to carve out the time to do the in-depth game analysis this topic demands, they're over there doing it already! Here's the link again: [Poison'd] Trying to understand Currency and Reward Systems.

I love that kind of rpg analysis with all my beating heart. I don't know how I could possibly design games otherwise.


16. On 2011-02-01, Steve said:

Vincent, I'm having a lot of fun on that thread. Thanks for pointing out that second medium-term reward cycle. It's mind expanding, using the systems chart (which just popped into my mind a couple of hours after I finished playing Poison'd) and actual play to figure out stuff about your three levels.

I'm having a bit of trouble figuring out where to go next with the conversation, though. Particularly, what's the answer to your third question: What are we doing over the course of the game? Without that, I don't think I can really take a crack at figuring out what the link is between 'What are my choices right this second?' and 'What am I trying to do here overall?'

I have this theory that the end of long-term Poison'd play is about judging your pirate or positioning them for the closing credits. I'm figuring that because the three key variables in the 'This is the final session' conditions seem to be:

+ you're alive or dead (and possible judged by God/The Devil)

+ you're either a pirate or you're not

+ you're either someone the players admire or you're not

If you've got time, it'd be great if you could share any thoughts on that.


17. On 2011-02-04, Linnaeus said:

Is a Forge-incoherent RPG design one where the design scales fail to connect, a la your first important consideration? Does that failure to connect (automatically) result in a busted reward cycle?


18. On 2011-02-06, Vincent said:

A Forge-incoherent design is one where some of its subsystems pitch toward one creative agenda while others pitch toward another. (I think we'd do just as well to consider it without reference to the creative agendas, taking every game on its own terms: an incoherent game design is one whose subsystems interfere with one another's workings instead of working together.)

So in those terms, no, there are lots and lots and lots of games that are Forge-coherent, but lack connection between what we're doing right now and what we're doing here.

None of this can make the least sense until I give examples! Maybe today I can grab the time.


19. On 2011-02-15, David Berg said:

Cool observations, Vincent!  I'm enjoying analyzing my own games in these terms.

I tried to come up with a useful example for your (c), but every game I can think of where "what we're doing right now" doesn't meaningfully connect to a larger scale purpose lacks a coherent "what we're doing here".

I can think of one game that's generally coherent across all scales but has a specific mechanic that (a) is quite fun in the moment and thematically apt to the whole game, but (b) doesn't meaningfully feed into "what we're doing tonight" and thus I tend to dodge it.  Shall I elaborate and offer that up as an example?


20. On 2011-02-16, Vincent said:

Sure! Elaborate away.

If you look at the examples I gave, all of those connections exist, but are they all good? Hardly! You can flub the link many, many ways, not just by failing to make it in the first place.


21. On 2011-02-16, David Berg said:

Oh, wait, perhaps I've missed something.  What examples did you give of present but maybe-not-superb connections?  I didn't get that from Chess and Shadowrun.

Are you talking about Poison'd?  Immediate & long-term seemed solidly linked; I couldn't tell about "in tonight's session" and whether stat changes would cover that.


22. On 2011-02-16, Vincent said:

Oh! Sorry. These examples.


23. On 2011-02-16, David Berg said:

Ooh.  Nice.  Thanks!  Great food for thought, there.

So, my example of a busted link is the Flashback rule from a 2008 playtest of Sign in Stranger.

The game is about forming an understanding of a place that began as truly alien.  Learning how to survive in it, communicate with it, meet objectives in it, and maybe even plunder it for humanity.  The immediate techniques are quite powerful toward that end, such as drawing random words and rolling colors to help establish the alien place.  These techniques are used nearly non-stop over the course of an evening, easily adding up to significant fleshing out of the world and the characters' understanding of it.

The game is also about how your character is changed by this exploration, possibly physically.  The char-gen process gives us a good idea of who each character is, the premise says that we take some weird drug that might alter us, and then we jump into an environment that may trigger such alterations.  Long-term, I think there's some mechanic for that.  Over the course of a session, I remember the odds of triggering that mechanic being very low.  In the one-shots I've played, no character endured any physical alteration.

This (combined with my personal taste) left me not really caring about character change—world discovery is way cooler anyway!

But then, when my character was faced with a stressful situation, I was instructed to narrate a flashback to a past event with a similar type of stress.  "What the fuck?" I thought.  "You're interrupting my exploration of this freaky cave!"  I grudgingly went with it, and the flashback itself was quite fun.

My character remembered some prior freaky situation, remembered bravely overcoming it, and then we cut back to the alien world as, steeled by this experience, I managed to avoid flipping out, and deal with the cave's menace gracefully.  It was fun to develop and share my character with the group.  Very cool scene.

But I felt this weird shifting of gears.  When we returned to the freaky cave, I'd lost my groove.  I quickly found it again ("Ah, yeah, this is intimidatingly inscrutable!  Nervous curiosity returns!"), but I really didn't want any more flashbacks.

Probing my character's psyche was great in the moment, but not at all what I was there to do tonight, nor a needed component of what I wanted from the game overall.


RSS feed: new comments to this thread