2014-07-19 : Aside: Designing a Bell Curve

An aside from Procedure, Components, Object, Strategy, Style; Strategy vs Style; Objects of RPGs; and Non-Endstate Objects, Strategy & Style

When you design a game, you design a bell curve of experiences. Every experience that anyone will ever have playing your game is a point under the curve.

Inevitably, when you create and publish a game, someone's going to come to you and say "hey, we played your game, and we had a bad time. What did we do wrong?"

There is un-fun play under the curve. There are times when the game crashes and the players get mad at each other under the curve. So the answer is probably that they didn't do anything wrong. Probably, they played your game right, and they had a bad time with it.

It's too bad that it happened to them, but it was going to happen to somebody!

1. On 2014-07-19, Moreno R. said:

There is at least an exception though, a game that, if you had a bat time with it, you didn't play by its rules...


2. On 2014-07-19, David said:

So this removes fault from the equation, right? The designer needn't say, "you played it wrong" and the players needn't say "you suck as a designer".

Instead we can all agree that there's a bell curve law of game design which states that games can please some people all the time, all people some of the time, but not all people all the time?

Except of course we want to keep pushing the bell curve farther towards the "good" +1 experiences and away from the "bad" -1 ones, right? Is there ever a point at which it could pass 0 at the x axis on that curve?


3. On 2014-07-19, Aron said:

What's on the two axes?


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This makes...
acm go "quality and quantity"

4. On 2014-07-19, Vincent said:

David: Right! As the designer, you did create the shape of the curve. Always do your best to create the curve you want to create. Just also recognize that there will always be a bad time for somebody under it, and expect to hear about it from them.


5. On 2014-07-19, Moreno R. said:

I think I realized what felt "wrong" (for me at least) in the initial post. It's not the "you can play a game exactly as it should be played and still have a bad time", that it's so self-evident that I didn't realize it was an issue (for people who disagree, I can post the rules of a old Italian convention game that in the rules had being hit in the nuts. I kid you not)

No, it's the first part:
When you design a game, you design a bell curve of experiences. Every experience that anyone will ever have playing your game is a point under the curve.

I don't think you can really do that.  The rules guide only specific interactions during a game session, not everything. I could see that happening with some computer adventure games (and only if you limit the observation to what happen on the screen) but not with people coming up with stuff on the fly.

But probably the important point was the one I agree with...


6. On 2014-07-19, Vincent said:

What's even worse than "what did we do wrong?" is "we had a bad time, so Vincent, please explain to my friend how he was playing wrong." Part 1 of the answer is, probably he was playing the game perfectly well, it just wasn't fun. Part 2 is, for sweet mackerel's sake, don't bring me into the middle of whatever stupid spat you and your friend are having. Yikes. Sort that biz out yourself.


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This makes...
GH go "uh hu. Been there!"

7. On 2014-07-19, Vincent said:

ANYHOW, yes, my main point is that expecting to create a game that is fun every time it's correctly played is pure hubris. Look out that the gods don't turn you into a Mousetrap pawn or something.


8. On 2014-07-19, Moreno R. said:

Mmmmm... just to clarify, because that "correctly" could have different meanings...

You are talking only about rules, game procedures, etc, so that you include in the "bad" games you talk about the situations where the players have incompatible styles or don't understand the strategy to follow and are lost...


You are not talking about these case, you are talking ONLY about the cases when the game was played exactly as the author wanted it played, the procedures works perfectly, but it's simply that the players are not finding the activity fun?

What you say would be true in both cases, but the point of that post would be different. (the second case seems to me a taste tautology, "you can't satisfy every taste", etc, the first include problems of communications)


9. On 2014-07-19, Simon C said:

I'd go so far as to say that, for some kinds of fun experience, the chance of a bad time must exist for the fun experience to be possible.


10. On 2014-07-19, Vincent said:

Simon: Yep!

Moreno: There's no such thing as "how the author intends." There's such a thing as "the author's wishful thinking," but nobody's beholden to that. Least of all the game's design!


11. On 2014-07-21, Vincent said:

Imagine if we were talking about normal games.

"I don't enjoy Chess." "You probably played it wrong."

"I don't enjoy Hearts." "No, you see, you have to play it the way the designer intended."

"I don't enjoy Super Mario Brothers." "Are you sure you played it right?"

Pure nonsense! Pure!


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This makes...
CC go "This is all fallout from "good gamer" implications people have absorbed"
VB go "agreed!"

12. On 2014-07-21, Moreno R. said:

But it's totally possible to play chess wrong....

For another example: I never enjoyed volley in high school because nobody cared to teach anybody how to play, and the usual guys hogged all the fun refusing to change position. When I understood how it was really played, years afterward, I played regularly for years.

Another example: if you can't stand to play a game where everything is railroaded to the point that the GM decides how you will have to play your character... does this means that don't like rpgs where there is a GM?

Third example: I personally know a player that has played his first game of Dogs in the Vineyard with a GM who didn't follow the rules for town creation, and build the city as a "mistery", making the roll for any little clue about the identity of a demon who was disguised as a human

When I head about the game, I should have said "this mean that you will never like DitV" or I should have said that the GM has played the game wrong?

(You can guess what I said, and he did buy the game after I did show to him how it was really played)


13. On 2014-07-21, Vincent said:

Of all the people who have played Dogs in the Vineyard, some played incorrectly, but most played correctly. If person A played Dogs in the Vineyard, they probably played it correctly.

Of all the people who have enjoyed playing Dogs in the Vineyard, some were playing incorrectly, but most were playing correctly. If person B enjoyed playing Dogs in the Vineyard, they were probably playing it correctly.

Of all the people who have had a bad time playing Dogs in the Vineyard, some were playing incorrectly, but most were playing correctly. If person C had a bad time playing Dogs in the Vineyard, they were nevertheless probably playing it correctly.

There exist people who have had a bad time playing Dogs in the Vineyard incorrectly. You can name some of them; I can too. Nevertheless, they are fewer in number than the people who have had a bad time playing Dogs in the Vineyard correctly.

Have I laid out all the possibilities? With me now?


14. On 2014-07-21, Ben Lehman said:

I'm not 100% sure that the thing you are asserting there is true. It's a demographic assertion: we have no idea if it's true or not. But, also we have no idea if the Forge-era doctrine of "if you didn't have fun you were probably playing wrong" is true either.

In the absence of any particular evidence, I'm just as happy to believe your statement as the other. I just want to note that this is basically arbitrary and, I think, a side-point to the point you're making.



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This makes...
BL go ""the thing you are asserting?""*

*click in for more

15. On 2014-07-21, Vincent said:

Ben: I admit it. A poll might prove me wrong. I bet a poll would prove me right, but you're right, we don't know.


16. On 2014-07-21, Jesse Burneko said:

Vincent, I guess I'm a cynic.

RPGs are a collection of tools and instructions on how to apply those tools toward a specific end.  The "object" in your discussion.  And knowing how to use those tools effectively towards that object requires proper orientation and often practice.  All of your posts about "objects" and "strategy" and "style" assume a kind of intellectual honesty and integrity with regard to the game's design.

And this is where I guess I'm a cynic: I do not believe that the vast majority of self identified "gamers" approach RPGs with that kind of honesty and integrity.

Imagine someone buys a coffee table that requires assembly and then comes back complaining that it's an awful table.  But you look at it and they only attached three of the legs, part of it has been sawed off, and everything was put together with screws that didn't even come with the table.

So you ask them what the hell happened and they tell you that as a child they spent every summer with their grandfather who made ornately carved three legged end tables.  And they use this story to prove that they know how a table is made.  And they hold up the fourth leg of the coffee table and say they don't even understand what that's for.  And it had the wrong kind of screws.  And the coffee table was too short.  And it wasn't decorated enough.  It's clearly a terrible table because they spent every damn summer making tables with their grandfather.

You'd call this person a pig-headed idiot.  It's not even that their grandfather made bad tables.  It's just that they assume that how their grandfather made tables is how a table "is" and anything that deviates from that is a bad table.  They don't even try to approach a new and different table on its own terms to see if it fits their needs or different need.

So yeah, I guess I'm a cynic.  I'm much more inclined to think the majority of gamers are like that.



17. On 2014-07-21, Moreno R. said:

@Vincent: you have listed the options, right.

I don't know if you are right about the percentages (as Ben said, too), but this is not the issue for me.

The issue is: what is more useful?

I consider a different division in categories.

1) Failed games I don't care a bit. Because I don't know about them, because I don't like them too, because I think that the player is a lost cause, because I have other things to do, etc, this is the bigger category. The default is not "people who played the game right", the default is "I don't care enough to care"

2) When I care. Because the player is my friend, because he asked me and I have the time and inclination to answer, or for any other reason, I want to help them.

But if care, I can't go for percentages. "Oh, in my opinion 79% of the people who don't like DitV played it right, so I will not ask anything to you and assume you are in the 79%. Stop playing DitV"

No, what I do, IF I care, is "what did happen in the game that you didn't like?"

And, simple like that, we are not talking about percentages anymore. If we talk about his game, it's rather easy to see if they played the game wrong (enough to give a false impression of the game, at least) or not.

until now I have not said anything that most people would not agree to, right? Vincent, you too ask these questions when you want to help someone with their game problems.

But this is the thing: to ask these question, you have to START with the "work hypothesis" that they plaied the game wrong, and ask question to verify if it's so. Because if the starting assumption is that they play the game right, there is no reason to ask.

So, the difference is really simply: assuming, in first instance, that a game (that worked for you) didn't work for other because they played it wrong, is fruitful. Even if you discover that they played it right but they simply don't like it could probably allow you to suggest them games that they would enjoy more.

Assuming in first instance that everybody is playing right is simply "RPG culture, the '90s", useless, static, no real communication, nothing to learn.

So, even if I agree that it's always possible that a game didn't work even if played right, it's always better (if you care) start searching for ways it was played wrong.

P.S.: from what you can learn from forum questions and actual play reports, about 95% of players play their first few "not traditional" rpgs wrong.


18. On 2014-07-21, Vincent said:

Moreno: As you say on G+, a player's point of view vs a designer's. When someone tells me they had a bad time playing my game, I want to know what happened because I want to improve my work as a game designer.

If it turns out that they didn't play my game correctly, I have nothing to learn from them.

Everybody: "If you didn't have fun, you played the game wrong" is a problem in indie RPGs right now. It's actively holding people back, both players and designers. I don't usually call for cultural change, but here, I guess I kind of am!

It's antithetical to the important idea of the good game with a small audience. If you create a good game with a small audience, you should expect many of the people who play it, even play it correctly, to not enjoy it. That's part of what it means to have a small audience.

It mysticizes the idea of playing a game "right." Playing a game right should just mean following its procedures. Currently, unfortunately, it doesn't just mean that, it means following its procedures with somehow the attitude that the designer intended, or something.

Finally, it blocks and baffles the honest feedback that's possible from a player to a creator. If you play a game and don't enjoy it, and the people around you shout you down with "you must have played wrong," the creator loses the opportunity to learn.


19. On 2014-07-21, Jesse Burneko said:

Are you including respecting the "object" in "following the procedures"?  Because I've played board games with people who clearly didn't care and even though on every turn they made a "legal" move but with such disregard for the point of the game that all they did was make the make the game more difficult and unfun for anyone else.

See also Griefers in MMOs.

And I'm saying RPGs are even more vulnerable to that than other kinds of games.

People willfully and arrogantly ignore the "object" of the game.

People willfully and arrogantly make poor strategic choices.

People willfully and arrogantly make poor stylistic choices.

So yes, they followed the procedures.  But at least when I say "play the game right", I also mean respect the object, make good strategic choices and make good style choices. Without those three additional things I'm not willing to say a person played the game "right".

And more importantly without those three things in place I'm not inclined to take the persons feedback on the game very seriously.



20. On 2014-07-21, Vincent said:

Jesse: I am including it, yes.

Since I starting explicitly telling people the objects of my games, the number of people playing wrong has plummeted. It's a little not-at-all shocking how effective it's been at communicating to people how to approach them.


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This makes...
BL go "+1"

21. On 2014-07-21, Jesse Burneko said:

Okay, with that clarification then I think my concerns move from criticism of design (theory) to criticisms of gamer culture.

I'm cool with the idea that a game was played correctly if everyone put in a good faith effort to achieve the object(s) with the provided procedures.

Whether or not that "good faith" is present is purely a social issue.



22. On 2014-07-22, Moreno R. said:

@Vincent: as you implied in your last comment, most Indie games are really terrible in telling people the object of the game (and not only that: often the procedures are badly explained, too). And the traditional rpgs are not better (they are arguably worse).
They compensated this by having the creator of the game on hand to answer question in the forums.  So having "you played the game wrong" in most of the discussion was not a cultural bias, it was factual reality. (for many games, I tell people "read the manual... and these 35 forum threads I compiled for you in this list", because these forum threads contains a lot of things that should have been in the manual in the first place)

It's easy to see what happened usually to games where the creator did not reply in the forums: these games disappeared, even if they had a very good start (and even if they were good games, only badly explained). People didn't know how to play them and gave up.

You say that a designer has nothing to learn from people who played the game wrong: I think that this would be true in the idealized situation where your game manual achieve total clear communication to every reader. In a real situation,  with real manuals, reading about people playing your game wrong teach you to write better manual next time (or at least, what to write in the second edition)  :-)


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This makes...
JMW go "this way of thinking gives a better scapegoat too;"*
Ich go "Yes! Second edition rulebooks would be a good thing!"

*click in for more

23. On 2014-07-23, JDCorley said:

I also think there's a distinction to be made between identifying the object properly in game design and communicating the object properly in game manual creation.  People who play a game wrong may have little to teach a designer, but surely when you put on the hat of a writer or editor, the fact that people aren't getting what you're trying to convey is relevant.

Like, nobody would try to teach someone to play chess by directing them to the USCF official rules of chess. Even though those rules define the object of chess very well, they don't (and aren't intended to) communicate the object to players. Instead the USCF has things liks Chess Magnet School.


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