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Game Design: Step by Step

A New Direction?

by Gareth-Michael Skarka

March 24, 2000


Despite the hullaballoo that ensued the last time that I approached the readership-at-large with questions regarding direction (click here, if you really want to go back over that again), the time has come for me to approach the subject again.

Basically, we've reached the point of diminishing returns regarding UnderWorld.  I've released all of the information that I'm able to in a public forum (unless I want to completely negate the viability of the game as a published product, rather than a free web release), and the game will be ready to go to playtest soon (a step which had a bit of a wrench thrown into it by my recent flooded apartment fiasco, which ate into the time that I had available to put together a playtest manuscript to ship out).  I'm not really interested in devoting a weekly column to week after week of "the game is still in playtest...not much to report."

So, yet again, I turn to my faithful readers and ask the question:  Where do we go from here?

The way I see it, I've got a couple of options.  First, I could turn this column into a general discussion of game design theory.  Each week I could take a look at a feature of game design, whether that be genre emulation, dice mechanics, character statistics, combat, or whatever.  Not too shabby.  Gives me plenty to talk about, and it still fits within the "Step by Step" title of this column.

The second option, of course, is that I move on to another game entirely, and start designing it from the ground up, right before your eyes.  As those of you who read my last column are aware, I've got a number of games in various stages of development, and any one of them could be a candidate for such a project.  It would allow me to show the process again from the start, with a different game this time, so that readers could see how the process that I outlined here can be applied.

Anyway, as I've said--I'm turning this over to you, the readers.  Post your opinions in the forum below, or email them to me privately.

                                                                *                                                    *                                                        *

In the meantime, there's something else I'd like to talk about this week, which (oddly enough) also fits in with the title of our current installment.  The possible new directions being taken in publishing, and how it might impact the gaming industry.

For those of you who have been sleeping under a rock for the past couple of weeks, here's a brief recap:  Steven King recently blew the collective minds of the publishing industry by releasing his latest short story, "Riding the Bullet", in an exclusively on-line format.  With little advance marketing or pre-press exposure, the 66-page short has racked up an impressive amount of downloads, and has made King somewhere in the neighborhood of $500,000.  Suddenly, publishing industry folks all over the world (myself included) have sat up and taken notice of what was previously dismissed as the print medium's awkward, ill-bred cousin--the internet.

Don't get me wrong. Speaking personally, I have been a proponent of the 'net as a tool since roughly 1991.  It was (and is) a great research tool, especially for writers.  However, until now, I (and many others like me) have scoffed at the idea of "net publishing" being anywhere near as valid as print.  In my own words (taken from a particularly spectacular flame war on the subject from about a year ago on rec.games.frp.misc), "as long as any yutz with a html-layout program and access to an ISP can 'publish' on the net, it will never be anything more than a haven for fanboys and wannabes.  It can no more make one a "published author" any more than operating a CB radio makes one a "broadcaster."

Hoo-boy.  Talk about your words coming back and biting you on the ass.

The fact of the matter is (and I apologetically have only just begun to realize the scope of this) that the internet has the potential to be the first true new medium for information and entertainment content since the television.  Sure, it's just taking it's baby-steps now, but once access becomes more universal, watch out.  The cool part about this is that everyone has the opportunity to reach their own audience.  I'm not saying that, for example, a web-release game company has anywhere near the chance of reaching as many people as the King story did (after all, the man has something like 25 years of name recognition behind him), but a web-based professional game company (professional as in marketed through traditional outlets, attending cons, and charging for their material, rather than just putting it up in HTML for free) definitely has the opportunity to reap a miniscule percentage of that figure.

For the sake of argument, let's say 1%---going on just what King has made, one percent of that would be $5000...which is certainly not a bad take for a small company for a single product that avoided the costs of printing and shipping...but obviously this is a very simplistic model.

I know that there are innumerable DIY games out there, put up on the web for free.  The quality of these games varies, from the transparently home-ruled versions of existing games, to interesting, well-designed games that are the equal of any game commercially available (for example, check out octaNe by Jared Sorenson.  I'm green with envy over this one).  This is not what I'm talking about, however.  I'm talking about running a commercial enterprise, where the customer pays for access to the downloadable files of a game--perhaps even purchasing a "subscription" that would give them access to the main rules, and all supplemental materials for a year.   With the exception of the delivery of the content, the company would be run like any other in the industry--advertising in the print media, attending conventions and, probably, if demand was high enough, offering CD-ROM versions of the on-line files through the regular distribution channels.

A couple of professional, "first-tier" companies have flirted with this (Steve Jackson Games' on-line magazine Pyramid is one, WotC's web-only release of DragonFist is another)--but "flirting" is the right word, I think.  They are tentative first steps, not intended to be the main focus of the companies in question.  DragonFist has the feel of something that WotC has dumped onto the 'net because they didn't know what else to do with it (which is a damned shame--the game is a brilliant example of the flexability of the D20 rules).  Pyramid, on the other hand, is more sure of itself (hardly surprising, since arguably SJG is the most net-savvy company in this industry), but is still ancillary to the main thrust of the efforts of the company, namely printing paper versions of the GURPS books.  Other companies have also experimented, of course, but it's been either as a sideline to their print inventory, or they've made no efforts to market themselves and have barely made a "ping" on the industry sonar.

It is my opinion that a game company devoting itself to downloadable content (via HTML, XML, Palm or Rocket eBook formats) will be in a nice position to carve a little niche for itself, and chug along quite contentedly in this little industry of ours.  Sure, it will only appeal to that niche of a niche of a niche (fans of your particular genre, among those with online access, among the gamers out there)--but that may be the ticket right there.  There's probably not enough scratch in it to make it worthwhile for one of the big boys, but plenty to make a comfortable living for a smaller company.

Like Prodigal Publishing Group for example.


See ya in 7,

Gareth-Michael Skarka

Underworld, and all related terms and concepts contained herein are copyright 2000 by Gareth-Michael Skarka. All rights reserved.

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What do you think?

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All "Step by Step" design columns

  1. Inspiration to Perspiration October 26, 1999
  2. Comin' wit da Nifties October 27, 1999
  3. Concepts Continued October 28, 1999
  4. Character is what you are in the Dark October 29, 1999
  5. Forces of Occupation October 30, 1999
  6. Forces of Occupation, Part II October 31, 1999
  7. Head Count November 2, 1999
  8. Subterranean Ass-Kicking, 101 November 9, 1999
  9. Next Stop, Rune Station November 17, 1999
  10. It's All 'Bout Da Merlins November 23, 1999
  11. Miscellany December 1, 1999
  12. Lords of the UnderWorld December 8, 1999
  13. Lucky 13 December 15, 1999
  14. Miracle Under 34th Street December 22 1999
  15. Gareth's December 27th 'edition' is a survey, on what you want for future Underworld columns.
  16. Statistics and Junk January 5, 2000
  17. Reality Slap January 12, 2000
  18. Once More Into the Breach... January 20, 2000
  19. The Mechanics of Mechanics January 26, 2000
  20. Junkmen and Soundtracks February 2, 2000
  21. The Iron Forestries of Hell February 16, 2000
  22. And Now, For Something Completely Different... February 24, 2000
  23. Confessions of a Language Geek March 1, 2000
  24. Flood of Ideas March 15, 2000
  25. A New Direction? March 24, 2000
  26. The Envelope, Please... March 29, 2000
  27. Generic Systems, My Ass! April 5, 2000
  28. Big News, and Magic April 12, 2000
  29. Big Guns, Razor-sharp Swords, and a Bit with a Dog... April 19, 2000
  30. What's the Story, Morning Glory? April 26, 2000
  31. And now for something completely different, Survey time! May 3, 2000
  32. The Fever for the Flavor May 10, 2000
  33. Random Acts May 17, 2000
  34. A Run Through Dark Places May 25, 2000
  35. Service Interruption June 1, 2000
  36. Endings and Beginnings June 29, 2000
  37. A Brief Return to the Underworld July 13, 2000

Discussion of UnderWorld

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Earlier Comments (Issues 1-7)

(Editor's note: I'll consolidate these when I get a chance)

Other columns at RPGnet

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