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A few things Mark Wallace

Tag: game design

Boy Scouts to Offer Merit Badge in Game Design

It’s a measure of how deeply games in general have penetrated our society that the Boy Scouts will soon offer a merit badge in game design. Scouts can apparently design any kind of game they like, from dice games to board games to smartphone games or more. They don’t need to code up a mobile game, but they do need to produce and present a design, and, notably, iterate on it in response to feedback. The program was created with the help of a handful of game design professionals. In a slightly weird twist, the Scouts will roll it out at South by Southwest Interactive this coming week. I’m not sure that would have been my choice, but I’m also not sure I can think of a better one. In any case, I like the spirit of the new merit badge. Helping entertain others can easily be seen as part of the Scouts’ mission to train young people in “the responsibilities of participating citizenship,” among other things. After all, we’ve seen how making board games can be a “better philosophy of life” — if the program can manage to be about the games themselves, that is, and not about the marketing. SXSWi, I’m looking at you…

Your Favorite Board Games Were Evolved, Not Designed

Well, maybe not your favorite board games. But Yahoo! Games, of all places, has a blog post on the shady origins of five popular board games that looks at the genesis of Monopoly, Life, Clue, Scrabble, and Chutes & Ladders. All of them have origins that are cloudier than you might think, and none sprang from the brows of their creators fully formed — that is, no one sat down to design these games, they were all modifications and refinements of games that had previously existed — some borrowing elements of board games that had existed for hundreds or thousands of years. Interestingly, many of them originated in games with a darker tone than the ones that become popular — Monopoly was originally a cautionary tale, not a celebration of capitalism, until Charles Darrow got his hands on it; Clue was somewhat more gory; Life was a bit of a downer (it included a “Suicide” square); Scrabble languished through 16 years and several refinements before finding its sales niche — at Macy’s.

Having been dreamed up for the most part in the early 20th century, it’s no surprise that these games didn’t get the intentional design treatment that games get today. But in a way, the process was similar. Most board game publishers today employ what are known as “developers” to take a designer’s version of a game and refine it for the market. It’s impossible to say, of course, whether those refinements are always improvements. I’d love to see “designer’s editions” of board games — akin to the “director’s cut” of a movie. In Monopoly’s case, you can just about piece together early versions into playable games, thanks to sites like “THE HISTORY OF THE LANDLORD’S GAME & MONOPOLY” and others. And in other cases, board game publishers are bringing out updated versions of older games — and including the originals in the same box. Fantasy Flight Games’ Merchant of Venus (which I reviewed recently for Shut Up & Sit Down) is a great example of this, as it includes both the original 1988 design from Richard Hamblen, and the updated (somewhat more playable) version from Rob Kouba. I’d love to see more…

The Board Game That Led to the First MMO

Richard Bartle's Wizards & Heroes board game

In our book on virtual worlds and online games (The Second Life Herald: The Virtual Tabloid that Witnessed the Dawn of the Metaverse), we give a lot of attention, fittingly, to the first persistent multiplayer online world. Known as MUD1 and dating from 1978, the Multi-User Dungeon was designed and developed by Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle — the latter of whom had an interesting post on Google+ last week about a board game he designed that had influenced the computer game.

The game, originally called Wizzards & Heros, was “inspired by a make-your-own game article I’d read in the magazine Games and Puzzles,” Bartle writes. As he describes it: “The basic idea was that you were a wizard or hero (or, later under D&D influence, priest) who was out seeking treasure. You would get treasure mainly from killing monsters, [but] simply killing a monster didn’t get you treasure: you had to have an advice card telling you that the monster had the treasure. Advice cards were acquired by ending your turn in a village (red circles on a road) or in a city (red hexes). You couldn’t sit in a village to get more advice but you could in a city; however, in a city there was a risk of plague, so you wouldn’t want to stay there long.”

There’s a great description of the game in Bartle’s Google+ post, including a very cool “corpse run” mechanic that’s common in electronic MMOs but which I’ve never encountered before in an analog game.

One misconception that Bartle corrects: The game predated his and his friends’ knowledge of Dungeons & Dragons, which is often cited as an ancestor of MUD1. D&D had an influence, but perhaps not as much as many writers (including myself) have assumed. “Much has been written about the influence of D&D on the development of MMOs, but in MUD‘s case at least there wasn’t a lot. I drew far more on games I’d made myself,” Bartle says. Another argument for grabbing your magic markers and scotch tape and getting started making board games.

Fitting Mobile Games Onto a Board

Temple Run Danger Chase: fun?
This is cross-posted from the Quora blog I recently started as an experiment. Why am I cross-posting this here? Who knows…

I love the idea of board games based on video games. But I’m not sure whether I like that idea better, or the idea of board games based on mobile gaming apps — like the Temple Run Danger Chase game, a review of which I stumbled across the other day.

The idea of tying board games to licensed IP in this way is very appealing. It doesn’t absolve the game of its burden of fun (the Temple Run game sounds like it may or may not have accomplished that), but it does give the games a leg up in a market in which few original titles see any appreciable sales. I know that games for properties like the Walking Dead and others have done very well for themselves, probably much better than if they’d just been pushed out into the market as games qua games.

This, of course, is the same avenue that a lot of electronic game publishers go down, not always with good results. Licensed video games run the gamut from fantastic (some of the Star Wars games) to abysmal (too many titles to list). But then, so do adaptations of books into movies. The license doesn’t make the product any better, it just makes it draw more attention, from a more qualified audience. And in the low-margin world of board games, that’s important.

The reason I like the idea of games made from apps is that the interaction footprint of an app is generally so small that you can extract a nice tight core mechanic from it for use in a game. What’s an interaction footprint? It’s something I just made up; like it? It’s a term that’s meant to characterize the number of possible interactions you can have with an app, or with anything, I suppose. Temple Run has an exceedingly small interaction footprint: you can swipe up, you can swipe down, you can swipe right, or you can swipe left, and two of those do essentially the same thing. In fact, the interaction footprint of Temple Run is so small that it sounds like the designers of the board game saw the need to add some.

Mobile games, especially those playable on a phone, are often forced by constraints of form factor to boil their experience down to a few key interactions. That’s not the only way to design a good board game, but it can be helpful, especially in a game for the mass market. Board games have other constraints, of course, in that feedback happens much more slowly than in electronic apps, and so more variety may need to be built in. But my top-of-head thought is that there must be a ton of mobile games out there with small enough interaction footprints that they would translate well into analog games. I’ll be right back, after I hunt up a few.

UPDATE: Forgot to include the news that board games for DOTA2 and Team Fortress 2 are on their way. Cool!

Pervasive Gaming and Best Practices at StoryWorld

I was at the StoryWorld conference in San Francisco earlier this week. It’s great to see the beginnings of a cohesive community and body of thought emerge around transmedia and evolving narrative — it reminds me of the early days of the community coming together around virtual worlds, and what fun it was to chronicle that.

I talked to a bunch of interesting people, but only sat in on one or two of the panel presentations. Herewith some notes on one of them, titled Streets That Tell Stories: How Pervasive Gaming Engages Audiencespervasive gaming being the kind that inhabits the real world around you, that takes place over hours or days or weeks or months, and has as its playing field a building or street or city or actual, physical world. You may not have heard much of this kind of game before, but there have been some very cool examples (linked below, of course).

The panel addressed techniques and approaches for creating pervasive games, and was moderated by Christy Dena of Universe Creation 101 (among other things), and featured three panelists:

Some of the recommendations and experience that came out of the panel:

  • If you trust people to enter into the world you’ve created for them, they absolutely know what to do.
  • Design to accommodate different levels of engagement.
  • You’re not just working in one medium, you’re thinking pretty much 360 every minute.
  • You have to know what the space is like at all times of day, and days of the week.
  • There’s no point in feeling you should do something in a traditional way.
  • You want to be on the ground and scout out those spaces, see what opportunities arise.
  • You have to be able to improvise as a creator and as someone running these things.
  • We’re like Situationalists 2.0, we just have better tools now. — Jeff Hull

Hull introduced himself as Creator Director of Nonchalance, “a situational design agency” in San Francisco. “Situational experiences involve spaces and people and other things to add to the environment. This is in contrast to experiential design, which very often can be kept within the two-dimensional monitor-based realm. Our mission is to provoke discovery through visceral experience and pervasive play, by reengineering the way participants and audience members interact with media, with the space around them, and most importantly with each other.”

Hull’s Nonchalance is best known for a very cool pervasive game built around an organization called the Jejune Institute, in which players worked to solve mysteries whose clues were hidden around SF, take part in protests, and participate in other immersive experiences that took place in the streets and buildings of the city. To get more of a feel for the particulars of the Jejune Institute, watch the trailer, and read this New York Times piece about the game.

While this isn’t too far removed from alternate reality gaming as we’ve come to know it, Nonchalance seems to be aiming for a more immersive and pervasive experience than most of those we’ve seen before. I think there’s a lot of potential for this, especially when combined with tools and practices from more “traditional” electronic gaming — not to take away from the pervasive experience, but to enhance it and help drive players to engage. Continue reading

Graduate Studies in Rock, Paper, Scissors

I chose "A"
On Tuesday, I started teaching a graduate studies course in the History and Techniques of Games at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. (To prepare, I ran through the Academy’s new faculty orientation, which included the above multiple-choice question, much to my delight). We’ll be looking at the history of games and gaming from the very beginning (i.e., ca. 5,000 years ago) on through the very latest. I want to construct the course around three main ideas:

  • what games are and where they come from
  • how games are made (in terms of both design and culture)
  • the roles of games in society and our lives

The course description (which I did not write) sounds pretty cool (see below), though it does not include the game of Rock, Paper, Anything (more about that below as well) that I had students play. Continue reading

What’s in a Tech Tree?

Civilization Tech Tree

Civ I Tech Tree (borrowed w/o permission from Nethog's Games Page, linked)

(Bigger image) I’ve been looking into the matter of tech trees and talent trees lately as I hammer out the details of the system I want to use in my own game, and I was going to write a long post all about their points and purposes (and how there’s not much like this out there on the Internets), but then I found this smart post from Peter Harkins (whom I don’t actually know). It doesn’t quite do what I’m looking for, but it comes close, by taking a stab at explaining “The Purpose of Technology Trees.”

As Peter has it, there are four main functions:

  • linearly organize options over time
  • act as gates on content consumption
  • increase the power scale of players
  • act as a resource sink for high-level players

I’d add to and perhaps slightly modify this. As below: Continue reading

Mass Queens and the Clarity of Game Mechanics


One question I’ve been pondering as I go about designing a strategy game is that of clarity in game mechanics, and in combat systems in particular. Committed players of strategy games (and many other genres, for that matter) have long taken joy in pulling apart the math behind the combat resolution systems that drive the games they play, in part to seek an advantage or upper hand and in part out of simple fascination. This description of the mass queen experiment from the StarCraft2 Hacks blog is a great example. It runs through a bunch of math, based on things like minerals, gas, queens, hatcheries, food, game time, energy, “transfuses,” injections and more, and comes to the colorful but perhaps surprising conclusion that “Queens are better cost effective healers than Medivacs.” Food for thought.

What’s interesting to me is the question of where a combat system might lie on the spectrum from transparency to obfuscation (through complexity or by other means), how that stacks up against the combat results you as a designer want to produce, and whether a game is any the better or worse for your equations and calculations being deeply buried, or riding on the surface of play. Continue reading

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