Technically Playable Games

This is part 2 of my 2-part answer to an apparently simple question, which is, "Vincent, why don't you just add the obvious character creation rules to your swashbuckling romance game and publish it?" Part 1 is here: A Pragmatic Theory of Playtesting, and my swashbuckling romance game is here: A Swashbuckling Romance Game.

Creating a Bell Curve

Imagine that when you create a game, you're creating a distribution curve. Picture every experience that anyone will ever have playing your game as a point under the curve, and imagine how they stack up. It's some kind of skewed, humpbacked bell curve, and you'll never know the real shape of it, but imagine it.

This curve is the origin of the "conversations you always have." The experiences that people have with your game that lead them to come to you and say "I hate highlighting stats" or "why is it that you get a reward for taking a blow?" or "Apocalypse World blew my mind!" are common under the curve, that's why they're common in the conversation.

Games that Don’t Take Off

Now, imagine that you've created a game where the common experiences - the peaks in the curve - are not interesting experiences. The game works, meaning that people can play it as you've designed it, but the experiences it commonly gives them don't stand out. They lead to no common conversations, or, at best, "we played your game! It was fun, good job! Next week we're going to try another game!"

I like to call games like this "technically playable," dismissively. Technically playable games are easy to create, once you've got the basics of game design down. I've created many, knowingly and un-. I've written before about games that take off vs games that don't, and this is what I'm talking about: games that spread by word of mouth on the strength of the experiences under their curve, vs games that play perfectly well but don't.

Some rpg creators think that this is primarily luck. I do not. I think that this is primarily because of the qualities of the common experiences under the game's curve, with luck playing a supporting role.

Your Goal for Your Game

So then, here's my answer: the obvious character creation rules won't create enough startling and thrilling experiences to make the game take off. If I add the obvious character creation rules to my swashbuckling romance game and publish it, it'll be technically playable, but that's not my goal. I want better for that game.

Installment 2015-10-17


Topic: But why?
Started by Christopher Wargo on 2015-10-22
3 replies by Vincent, Christopher Wargo.
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Topic: The role of the GM...
Started by Trumonz on 2015-10-18
1 reply by Vincent.
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Topic: Just a check

On 2015-10-18, Gordon wrote:

Per my comment on part 1, if instead of "technically playable" I say "a good game", and instead of "I want better" I say "I want it to have heart" ... am I still in the right neighborhood?

If so - as your calling it a curve demonstrates you understand, one cool thing is that "technically playable" might actually be sufficient to produce "better", for some people in some (maybe kinda-knowable?) circumstances. "Having heart" can happen for a particular playgroup, even if the overall curve is "merely" trending toward Good.

I'm not sure that matters too much in deciding if a game deserves/needs more attention (or should simply be abandoned) before publishing. But I like that it reminds us that even if they're not exactly common in a particular game/curve, desireable play-outcomes might still happen. Certainly, a designer can simply say " not often enough!" and continue developing the game (or simply move on to something else).  I can, though, also imagine "damn, only maybe 20 people in the world are going to REALLY produce what I want with this - but you know, I want to make it available anyway in the hopes that those people find it."

On 2015-10-18, Vincent wrote:

Yes! Right on. I'm a big believer in good games for small audiences.

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