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Not Giving You What You Want

One of the most curious aspects of game design is balancing playtest feedback with what’ll make the game functional. Invariably in playtesting, I’ll get some sort of response back akin to “we wanted more choices/skills/hero points/etc.”

Of course you do, I think, you’re human. That’s not what I say, of course, but that’s always my initial reaction.

Games exist at the crossroads of non-optimal choices[1] — to speak specific about roleplaying games, on both character creation and execution of play — and balancing those non-optimal choices is no small task. That isn’t to say that I totally disregard such comments, but that those comments aren’t evaluated at face value. I have to figure out if wanting more in that case is what I need to have happen, in order to drive play, differentiation, ease of use, or some other reason.

However, I also have to figure out if I gave too little, and how much is the right amount to adjust by. Sometimes as designers we err on the side of “not enough” in order to see how little we need to do to get the game to work. Because if we err on “too much,” other effects of the game become broken and it’s actually rather difficult to trace back why, as the sort of feedback we would get is “the game is boring.”

“The game is boring” is what we risk when we give too much, because that’s exactly what happens. Minds thrive on non-optimal choices (and getting the occasional optimal one, after fighting for it) and become bored with always having optimal choices. People might not initially be bored with it, and celebrate whatever competence gained from having too much, but it’ll lose its appeal quickly.

Sometimes when looking at a comment like “I would have liked more hero points,” I also evaluate the context: is that because the game being played is far different tonally or scale-wise than the game I’m envisioning? Is that tone or scale legit, and my preference is just preference, or is that tone or scale breaking the conceit? If it’s just preference, it’s easy to write an option (along with explanation!) into the text, but we can’t have too many options like that or we erode faith in the game’s text as well as its understandability.

Of course, the issue might not even be the mechanics, but the text explaining them. I have read comments about wanting more of something, only to react with “But it’s easy to get more in play! You just…wait, I did a really crappy job of explaining that part, so I see why you said that.” Often, overviews and summaries are great for this, though I strongly advise not leaning on those like crutches.

Some examples:

  • I overheard the design team at Paizo talking about some feedback on the upcoming Advanced Class Guide, with responses akin to “Yeah, that would be a cool option, which would make this the best class ever and make its parent classes moot.” And that would make playing in a game with that class unfun for those not playing that class, the GM, and eventually for the one playing that class.[2]
  • In the upcoming Fate edition of Achtung! Cthulhu, there are quite a few more skills that the standard 18 of Fate Core, so the skill pyramid grew. Some people weren’t happen with it, so I re-evaluated the math. I added a little more, not as much as some asked for, and added an option for “extra-heroic play.”
  • Many people want more aspects for their Fate characters, and we’re talking about how that’s aspect spamming and that reducing it (a) makes Fate play more dynamic and (b) makes character creation easier. (What I wish we had done in the text was do a better job of explaining it.[3])
  • The original refresh economy in Spirit of the Century was way, way too high.

– Ryan

[1] This I learned from the esteemed John Wick.

[2]  I contend that the Bloodrager is the best class ever, but for entirely personal, narrative reasons: they’re fucking awesome. I mean barbarians with sorcerous blood — how the hell can you go wrong?

[3] Fate Core has taught me that we apparently need to devote more text to explaining design decisions because players aren’t willing to trust that the people making the game know what they’re doing. Admittedly, this annoys me, because I don’t want to litter a book with design essays which only people who aren’t new to a game will get the full context, but we’ve learned that those would be helpful.

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2 Responses to Not Giving You What You Want

  1. Jeff Cales says:

    Ryan,

    Great article on game design. As a designer myself, I find it very helpful to look through someone elses lens. I just started reading your blog and didn’t know you were involved with Fate until now, and still have yet to play your system. Sorry, just one of many to get around to.

    I do have a suggestion on your third bullet point about giving design notes. Leverage today’s technology and put a link to your games website where the explanation exists that goes beyond the scope of the game mechanics and the inherent limitations of documentation for any given subject. Second, offer expanded coverage of those topics in your PDF’s (if you sell / release those) as either annotations or roll over’s in the interactive form of the PDF. Unfortunately not all readers are equal and the interactive javascript Acrobat employs breaks down. For example, Preview on a Mac doesn’t always read the interactive document correctly.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Jeff,

      Never apologize for not playing someone’s game. So many out there to play. :)

      What you’re talking about is something others have also suggested on G+ and elsewhere. It’s not a bad idea, but it is more content, more production, and if you do it in one part of the book you’ll end up doing it all over the place (or be asked why you didn’t). Then there’s having multiple versions of the same file, because of different readers on different devices, accessibility, etc., so any file updates become a nightmare. Truth be told, none of that is a value-add enough to make the time investment pay off.

      Plus, that’s all before the real sticker happens: you can only know what people will wish you had written about after publication. Not even in playtest will it all get caught, because often playtesters are either too focused on the mechanics to give you that sort of feedback, or they’re reading you too generously to see what’s missing.

      – Ryan