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Thinking Virtually

#18: The Game Is what the Game Is

by Shannon Appelcline
July 23, 2001  

Let me start off this column by apologizing for the long hiatus since last I wrote. When last this column graced rpg.net, Travis Casey was discussing the differences between online RPGs and other mediums. It was another perspective on design, which has been my main focus since this column's inception. In the next few weeks I'm going to finally finish up my discussions of design. I won't be completing them, by any means, but I figure it's time to start moving on to some of the intriguing questions of development and "engineering".

Though I've talked a lot about design, covering the whole spectrum--from the elements of good storytelling to how you create a computer game--I haven't hit what I consider to be the most central precept of game design. And that's what I'll be doing this week. It's a very close mirror to a column that I wrote about a month ago for Skotos, but nonetheless it's a totally new offering.

Figuring Out What You Want ...

Before you can actually design a game you need to figure out what you want. There's a whole cornucopia of questions here, many of which I've discussed before. However, the most crucial question for this column's purpose is: what type of gameplay do you desire?

There are numerous models for gameplay. Richard Bartle, the creator of the first MUD, offered one model that is widely used for online games. It divides players into four types--achievers, explorers, killers, and socializers--and then speculates that games can support any or all of those types of gameplay.

In the world of tabletop RPGs, we recognize other types of players, among them power gamers, rules lawyers, pure roleplayers, and problem solvers. I have very different memories of the gameplay of a recent Star Trek game (which is about socializing and cooperating) and a long-past Boot Hill game (full of backstabbing and treachery).

As a game designer you get a big vote in what type of gameplay your game includes. You can decide whether you want to make a game that attracts power gamers, munchkins, or pure roleplayers. And, particularly in a huge online game, that decision might affect whether your game is viable at all.

... and Getting It

The question that's core to this whole discussion is: how do you help determine the gameplay of a game? There are a ton of answers, from appropriately written player's guides to online social engineering, but I think there's one factor that's supremely important. It's the title of this article:

The Game Is what the Game Is

By that I mean, the gameplay of a game is heavily influenced by the systems that you implement in the game.

This is a much bigger deal in online games than their tabletop brethren because online games are much more commonly moderated by game systems than by actual people (who could offer social engineering ... or just push players in the right direction). But, even in tabletop games the social effects of gaming systems should be obvious, as the following examples illustrate:

AD&D, 1st ed. I don't think there's much doubt that the first ed of AD&D was primarily a hack-and-slash game. The reason is obvious when you look at the base experience system. You got experience, and improved your character, primarily by killing things and collecting loot. So, what do you think players are going to do?

Pendragon. Although some people hate the personality trait system in Pendragon, there isn't much doubt that it's an integral part of the game. Characters can get checks in "Honor", "Pride", "Lustfulness", and a number of other traits. The scores in these traits can have an affect in the most extreme cases, but the primary affect of the traits is a social one. Because the traits exist, and because characters can increase or decrease their scores, characters will tend to keep those traits in mind and either act with or against them.

Top Secret / SI. This was one of many games which included some variant of "luck points". (I think Torg and James Bond 007 might have been a few others.) The basic idea: something terrible happens to your character, and you expend a luck point to undo it. In most of these games, the purpose was to encourage a more dramatic and heroic type of gameplay.

Putting the Pieces Together

When you're designing an online game, you should follow two core precepts:

  • Figure out the type of gameplay you want to encourage.
  • Build game systems that encourage it.

Want to encourage socialization? Make sure that skill gain, experience, or whatever, happens in social situations. Want to discourage combat? Send the NPC police flying in whenever conflict occurs. Want to encourage people to only play a few hours a day? Make characters spend lots of offline time recovering.

Easy. You just need to make sure that every time you implement a new game system, you think of all the possible affects that it could have--since some might be quite far-fetched--and see if they match up with your own goals for the game.

Next week, I want to offer a reprint of an article talking about designing for the mass market (and the pitfalls thereof), and then I'll be back with a wrapup of design and an introduction to development and engineering.

See you then!
Shannon TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

What do you think?

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