I had a talk yesterday with Austin about beats. They’ve been on my mind a lot lately. I think a large part of what I like so much about Vincent’s games is that they help me structure play, beat by beat. They help keep scenes from being sketchy, they make surprising outcomes and shape moments.

So, we ended up talking about Apocalypse World. Moves are beats (though, importantly, not all beats are moves). Each moment, you need to know what the next moment is, because it might trigger mechanical things, so you play it through, moment to moment. Each move has uncertain and potentially surprising outcomes, so you play the next moment after it differently than you would have had the move not happened.

But then, a creeping realization stole upon us. What you do in terms of “crunch” in that moment is dead simple, and the game still works. The interest in RPGs doesn’t come from what you do with the dice. A fancy dice game isn’t necessarily a problem, but it is such a profound misapplication of your time and energy as a designer, to think first and foremost “what can I do to make people interested in the dice”. In “what you roll, when” it is the “when” that is most important. What beats get randomized, and sure, there’s a lot of play in how you interpret the dice roll, when and whether you can change it, etc, but there’s a meaningful level at which any dice system is just “let’s get random numbers”.

So, if I want to make mechanics that help shape the moment-to-moment beats of the game I’m making, I don’t need to make a fancy dice game. I need to make good beats.

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I’ve been mulling over the idea of playtests-as-studies. I’ve been thinking particularly about a recent conversation I had with the inimitable Avery Mcdaldno, wherein they suggested that, for a game you intend to Get Out Into the World, you have a limited budget (maybe, say, 4 to 40) of playtests. And so each one has to drive the game forward, but also, you will never get it just right or, dare I say it, perfect.

So, what do we do with that? How do you spend your playtests, allot your studies? What do you need to get filled in first, and what can wait to be done in the detail work, the finishing touches?

I dunno. But I’m curious to find out. I suspect strongly that a lot of the getting-better-at-making-games lies in this space.

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Just shy of a year dormant, but a post! I’m gonna try to get over my “I must post something Worthwhile” hangup.

 

I’ve spent the day at the National Gallery, looking at Andrew Wyeth, Degas, Cassatt. When I was little, this was my least favorite museum (Air & Space and Natural History always claiming my affections), but as I grow older, I grow to appreciate it more.

What struck me today was looking at a wall of studies Degas did for his series of Mary Cassatt at the Louvre. Eight or so paintings, each more or less “complete”, each with their own moments of brilliance and their own failings. Eight of them, arrayed side by side, showing much (but by no means all) of the process involved in creating the final work.

The final work was definitely more polished, probably better than any individual study, but it got there because of the work put in to the studies. And there were some bits that didn’t come off as well in the final piece, for sure, but you know, that’s just how it goes. Maybe they wouldn’t have been as good in that final (overall better) context, maybe they were just impossible to capture again.

So it is with a game. Maybe, even, if it helps you, don’t call them “playtests”, call them “studies”. Each one is a whole game (gamelet?) in its own right, with some strengths and probably more weaknesses, but not made with an aim to completeness and publication, rather with an aim towards preparation and honing your understanding of the space and your art.

Make more games. Maybe most of them never make it out of your studio, but that’s not at all “failure”.

 

Today, a guest post from our illustrator and sales expert, Allie McCarthy.


So—you’ve made an awesome indie game. This is the part when you get to take a moment to fully and un-ironically congratulate yourself. Seriously. You just accomplished something amazing, and you deserve credit for it. Also, you’re going to need to feel really, really proud of your game for what comes next—convincing people that they should be as excited about your game as you are. (If you aren’t excited about your game, you either need to fix it or talk to someone who isn’t a total perfectionist. That means you, Kit La Touche).

There are a few ways to do this. Transneptune has found that IPR has worked really well for them, but I believe this has been in a large part due to their wiliness to talk about Becoming Heroes online and sell it from their own booth at Gen Con. This piece is largely aimed at people using forums and the Con community to build an audience for their new game.

Since most of us have fairly unpleasant memories of the last time someone tried to sell us something, the idea of selling your game might feel at little seedy, like you’re sullying this beautiful, sacred world of game design you’ve entered into with your desperate materialism. Rest assured, you can retain your integrity as a game designer and as a human being while still giving your game the chance it deserves by selling it. It shouldn’t even feel like selling. Don’t think of it as selling. Stop. Pink elephants.

Anyway. Some tips on how to make the experience of “selling” your game as pleasant and effective as possible. Bear in mind, I am an introverted, fairly nerdy (surprise surprise) person who grew up on the kind of heroic fantasy that generally eschewed such mundane pastimes as “sales” and “marketing.” I am pretty resentful of the fact that the games that I’m involved in don’t magically sell themselves despite being Things of Beauty That Will Solve All Your Problems. Magical tomes of Great Wisdom and Knowledge don’t need to be sold—why should my awesome game need to be? Psh. Reality. Psh.

Despite all this, I have worked for three years in sales, sometimes in the field and more recently training other salespeople, and I’ve found some methods that really, really work without making me feel like a total ass and, pun intended, sellout. Here goes.

Believe in your game, know your game.

I decided to start with this one because it’s really obvious. You won’t be able to get people excited about your game if you don’t believe it’s good and if you don’t know much about it. Duh. On another level, your belief in your game’s awesomeness will be conveyed through your vocal expressions and body language, which are pretty contagious and will likely make other people excited as well. At the very least, you’ll be really fun to talk to.

That said, if you’re excitable, it’s easy to get carried away. Onward!

Listen about twice as much as you talk

When I’m simultaneously excited (Gaminggaminggaminggaming!) and nervous (there is a human in front of me and sounds are coming out of their face!) it’s hard not to railroad. That is, talk and talk at increasing speeds as the person I’m talking to gets fog-eyed and shifty, but I can’t stop because this next thing I say will definitely get their attention, surely it will… anyhow.

A good way around this very human tendency is to focus on slowing down, and on listening. And the best way to listen is to ask questions, which will provide you with things to listen to. Huzzah! Ask what a person’s favorite game is, ask them why they like it, ask them to tell you about a really good campaign they were a part of. Paraphrase what they say back to them so that it’ll stick in your mind and make them feel heard. But please, for the love of Cthulhu, don’t parrot them. They will notice and be irritated.

There are probably many different facets of your game, and listening will help you find out which facet will make the gamer you’re talking to most excited to play.

Don’t sell features—sell awesome.

Ok. Imagine you’re at GenCon, and you’re looking for a new Indie Game to try out. What sorts of things are you looking for?

Most people (including me, the first time) answer this question by listing off features that appeal to them—in my case; less combat oriented, lots of magic, short character creation, handfuls of Chessex d10′s bathed in the tears of fairies, etc etc. The thing is, I only listed those features because in the past they’ve given me what I’m really looking for—an amazing, transformative, mind-blowing gaming experience with my friends.

This is going to be a little long, but that’s because it’s extremely important. People may think they’re buying features, but what they’re actually buying is the much more general benefit of the game—the extraordinary amount of fun (or education, or enlightenment, I’m not sure how one would pitch something nevertheless great like Grey Ranks as “fun”) they will gain from it. This should be at the center of your pitch.

When you’re talking about your game, don’t talk about game mechanics, how character creation works, or delve into the minute details of the setting. It is easy and tempting, but don’t, unless of course you’re asked. It will be necessary to give an overview of the setting and the premise, but what you really want to hone in on is what a fantastic gaming experience playing your game provides. Talk about the adrenaline rush play testers felt during combat scenes, talk about the transformative conversations you had afterwards, talk about how much you laughed and cried and yelled and about that one game where two of your players started dating in the moments following a game’s conclusion. This is why people game. This is what your game is ultimately about.

Unique Selling Proposition (your Thing)

Unique Selling Proposition is a fancy term my boss uses for That Thing That Makes Your Game Special. This is the Thing that your game does to create the fun, transformative benefits that people are looking for. Most games do it pretty differently, and talking about it in your pitch will help determine whether your game is a good fit for the gamers you’re talking to.

For instance (it is now shameless plug o’clock), I’d say that Becoming Heroes‘ ‘Thing’ is its adrenaline-rush inducing combat and storytelling systems, and its ability to make players feel connected to heroes from their favorite media. On the other hand, I’d say They Became Flesh‘s (a game I recently discovered and loved) ‘Thing’ is the way it allows gamers to deeply experience some very compelling philosophical ideas, and opens people up to the point where they can feel comfortable talking about them. I find both games emotionally rewarding, but in different ways. Know what your game does for people.

Hand a copy of your game to the person you’re talking to

It makes them feel like that copy already belongs to them. It makes them feel like you’re giving them a gift. It’s just sort of nice. They can get a closer look at the pictures. Magic.

Don’t sell yourself short

If a rich guy were presented with identical #2 pencils, one priced at $1 and the other priced at $10, and he had no idea that the pencils were identical, he’s probably pick the $10 pencil. He’d figure he’d get more out of something that’s worth more.

On that note, if you price your 150-page game book that you spent a year on at $5, people aren’t going to think, “Oh man! What a fantastic deal!”—they are going to think that it must be a piece of luh suh. If you price your game at what you think it’s worth, people will have an easier time seeing the value in it.

If you’re shy, there are ways around it.

This is a big one for me. My mom once had to pay me $20 to go talk to a boy I liked at a neighborhood party because she was sick of seeing me mope around the punch bowl. I’m not a natural salesperson, but I had to learn it out of necessity.

Remember: If someone approaches your table, if someone asks about your game, if someone so much as glances at the little flyer thing you printed out to promote your company, they are curious about you. They want to know more. It is not an imposition to ask them a question, to get into conversation, and politely enthuse about your game.

I’ve found that no matter how anxious something makes me, pushing through and doing it three times or so, no matter what the outcome, makes me much, much more relaxed about it. This includes mind-numbing anxiety inducers like karaoke and talking to strangers wearing cool clothes.

Be a human. Unless you can be the Geico Gecko. Then always be the Geico Gecko.

I could wax poetic about this little guy for hours. The way he modulates his voice, the way he gestures with his hands as though he’s offering you a gift, the way he respects his audience’s agency, the way he’s so damn polite…

Love him or hate him (love him.), the Gecko is a sales genius, and when you’re wading through mires of doubt and shyness, try to emulate him. Do the accent if that makes you feel better, I guess, though I can see that particular tactic yielding mixed results.

I think what makes him really effective is his quiet confidence in his product and ability to make it appear that he’s offering you a choice—he respects your time, he respects your decision, he simply wants you to consider Geico. This makes people feel safe and competent, and thus more receptive to his opinion. At the same time, he makes it quite obvious that he thinks his product is the best. You wouldn’t be stupid if you didn’t pick Geico, but then again, why wouldn’t you? ::little green gecko shrug::

Gecko doesn’t waste your time with features. You’re busy. Gecko just talks about what he knows you want—to make this stupid car insurance thing as cheap and painless as possible.

Allow yourself to put a lot of warmth and emotion in your voice. Smile or, if you think a smile will look forced, be thoughtful. If you want to read about how to act like an awesome human or lizard at cons, I highly recommend this article.

Go forth. If you have anything to add or argue about your own experiences, please feel free to share it.

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A few thoughts intersected the other day. Let’s see if I can get them down.

Here’s the short of it: balance is a canard. You don’t want balance, at least not in an RPG. You want interesting choices. Balance is a response to one kind of failure of interesting choices, that of a dominant strategy. But you can have a lack of interesting choices in the other direction: if every choice is equivalent, that is, if your choices are false choices, then your game (qua game) suffers just as much as if it had a dominant strategy.

So, you need to make things asymmetrical, maybe even unbalanced (gasp, gape). It’s a balance to strike, between the fire of a dominant strategy and the ice of false choices. You need to make the experience of play involve moments of “if I had only done X”, so that the rest of the choices you make are meaningful.

Now, there’s a strong version and a weak version of this claim. The weak is that, for all choices, you should have at least two meaningfully different options, where it is not transparently clear which will be the better one. The strong version is that you should also have some options that are clearly worse. I only mean to maintain the weak version, but with the caveat that what is clearly worse to you may well be compelling to someone else.

There’s another wrinkle to this, which Austin articulated very nicely the other day: when he comes to the table, he wants to see the choices other people make, and he wants those choices to be different from his own. So you need choices that ramify into other meaningful choices.

OK, theory, fine. How do you do this? Obviously, that’s context-dependent. But here are my principles on the matter:

  • Make your game have multiple axes of interaction, which are not directly comparable. You can think of this as “choose the problems you want to expect”. In Apocalypse World, for example, you can focus on personal effectiveness or group effectiveness: are you a badass, or are you a badass because of and through your gang? Obviously, the latter comes with some problems—things that aren’t in your control like challenges for leadership, supply issues, communication issues, etc. But at the same time, there are things you can do with and as a gang that you simply can’t as an individual.
  • Play enough to see the ruts you make when you play. If, after choosing M, you consistently go from there to Q, F, R, then consider collapsing those options. Especially if there’s no other way onto that path, and everyone else you see follows it the same way.
  • Make a variety of things in your game. Like, mechanically meaningful widgets. This can be variety within a category of thing, or a variety of categories of things. This is a contentious point; a lot of games have been made, many very good, without many types of things. I acknowledge that this is a taste thing for me. I like games where you get to choose from lists of Distinctions/Moves/Gifts/whatever, and make up your own, and engage with the game outside the act of play-as-play. So, if that’s not your aim or style, at least help the players to make interesting situations where the choices they have to make in the story are valid.
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So, I’ve been posting to G+ these snippets: they’re a little too small and underdeveloped for the blog but I thought I’d do a round-up and save them here. If you want to know more about how Piece of Work is going, take a look over here:

On the topic of damage.
On the topic of perspectives.
On the topic of the core mechanic.
On the topic of purchasing gear.

There’ll probably be more as we finish our final playtesting and toss around more rules edits. Hope you enjoy!

So, a while back, we talked about doing a thing called Demand Mechanics. The idea is that we will do improvisational mechanic design: pull something out of a hat, bat ideas around for how to make mechanics about it. The video didn’t go up right away, due to none of us really knowing anything about video editing. At this point, we think it’s better to get it up than not, so here it is, in its raw unedited glory. It was fun to do, and we hope you’ll enjoy it!

In this half-hour segment, we design mechanics for the following things:

  • Feeling bad about killing orcs.
  • College exams

 

Kit, Austin, and I sat down to play Dog Eat Dog last night on a whim. I wanted to do something but we didn’t have formal plans, so Kit listed off all the games we’d been meaning to play, and I picked the smallest one. I think all of us were just slightly lower energy than we usually are, which led to a quiet, casual atmosphere. It turns out that’s perfect for Dog Eat Dog.

I expected the game to be more serious. This is a game about colonial oppression, about how the occupation has all the power, and the natives have none. It was more mellow than that. You start out by naming some facts about both sides: the Natives share a proud desert culture, The occupation is technologically superior. Then you start a list of Rules that the occupation has conveyed to the natives, and the first rule must always be the [Native Culture] are inferior to the [Occupation Name]. The game plays in a few hours, and it seems like it’s more or less a one-shot style game.

Sounds intense, yeah? Of course, our first reaction as people when involved with something that intense is to buffer ourselves with humor, distance, and irony. I ended up being the occupation, and the Varangians, as we were known, were out to “fix” the natives. As Kit put it, the things that are true about the natives become traits which the occupation ends up attacking. The natives in our game, known as the Raj, had no discernible gender roles. Our first scene was one in which the scholar Pasho was burning dresses in the marketplace.

One thing the game stresses that I find super important is to push as far ahead into the action as you can. We found that a lot of the game is about what you’re willing to dispute. “I’m burning the occupation’s dresses in the marketplace,” Austin says. “Yeah? Okay.” say I. “I’m going to preach to the people of the marketplace about the evils of the occupation’s treatment of women.” “Then you’re going to get arrested.” Cool. Dice time.

After you roll dice, whoever rolls better gets to say how it all goes down. If anyone has any problems with it, they can have the occupation say how it goes down. Which means, when you’re a native in conflict with the occupation, you have this pressure to come up with something you think will be acceptable to the occupation. I found, though, that as the occupation, you also have pressure to accommodate the conclusions that the native players provide, if you want any sort of legitimacy to your occupation. I found myself negotiating more than proclaiming.

After each scene, the natives confer and make new rules about what they see as the occupation’s stance on things. For instance, in the first scene of the game, the natives decided that the occupation must really not be okay with speaking loudly in public places. This is the one spot of the game where the natives have any real authority and it inspires just the sort of helplessness in the occupation player you’d want. To whit: I was continually frustrated that I couldn’t “make them love me”. Here I was, bringing in roads and they come up with “Varangians have tender feet.”

All in all, the game was exactly the game we wanted that evening. Just enough space and low energy requirements that we could dive in without any real preparation or thought, and enough dramatic moments that the game actually produced a narrative we cared about. If you haven’t picked it up yet, I recommend you give it a try.

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So it’s been a few weeks since our last post because we’ve been working on a panoply of things. I want to get all of it down, because it seems impossible to be doing so much. Also, there are some exciting things in the works.

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