Archive for February, 2011

Follow-Up: Time + Hard Work != Great Game

2011 Feb 28

As a sidenote to my post from last night…

This is about also needing the spark.

I had about a 4-5 month break between when I stopped working at my last job and starting grad school. During that time, aside from a little freelance graphic design work, I had nothing on my plate except finishing Geiger Counter. And yet, it didn’t get finished, despite me trekking to Starbucks multiple times a week and spending 3-5 hours on it.

Sometimes, what’s wrong with the game isn’t something you can fix right now. Maybe you won’t be able to fix it ever. Or maybe you’re just not in a place where you can really work on it. Time and hard work isn’t a substitute for the insight and energy that you may need in order to move forward on a project and people come to their insight in different ways. For me, it almost always happens when I’m doing something else — walking the dog, doing dishes, in the shower, playing a game written by somebody else, or working on a game idea supposedly unrelated to the other one.

But, during those 4-5 months, I was so stressed out about finishing Geiger Counter that I wasn’t really open to those moments. Or I was depressed or anxious about the other crap in my life, and music was a much better creative outlet that game design was, at least for that period. In any event, the insight didn’t come. Geiger Counter still had a number of issues and I wasn’t in a position or state of mind to address them.

I was just chatting with Elizabeth and she was saying that the important part is combining the insight with time to work on it. Sometimes the insight, the spark that gives you the ideas and energy to move forward, comes when you’re too busy with day-to-day life stuff to take advantage of it. That sucks. But then other times you have the time set aside but the spark isn’t there, at least not for the project you’re “supposed” to be working on. That sucks too, maybe, but not nearly as bad. You still have the time set aside, right? Doing something else with it, something that excites you right now or something that connects you to the people you care about. Those are the very things that throw fuel on the fire, that nurture the spark.

And then hopefully you’ll be ready when it strikes again.

Design However Makes You Happiest

2011 Feb 28

I was really trying to stay out of the kerfuffle that Ben started on Anyway, partially because it seemed like the indie game design community’s annual excuse to talk about all the things that annoy us about the way other designers go about their business (or don’t).

But then Ron weighed in, bringing up the supposed “failure” of the community to properly support (or, maybe, according to Ron, stay out of the way of) the Ashcan Front. And that Game Chef has supposedly turned into something alien from its original, true purpose — when, frankly, Ron doesn’t get to decide what the purpose was since he’s never been part of it and, also frankly, has broken the rules he instituted for Game Chef (“only once a year at the Forge, to not be a distraction”) in order to run a design contest he named after himself. I mean, I love Ron, but really.

When it comes down to it, nobody else really knows how you should design games, because nobody else really knows why you are designing games in the first place. Maybe you don’t know either. Sometimes I’m not sure why I design games and lately I’ve tried to get better at, when I have those doubts, putting the game aside and doing something else. Other times, for specific projects, I know exactly why I’m doing it, and it isn’t to finish or publish a game; generally, it’s to realize an idea in words and diagrams and eventually play it with friends. Sometimes it takes me several fits-and-starts or years of slow progress to do that. I have other, more important things happening in my life! Sometimes it involves producing a lot of ideas that never go anywhere, just to see which ones stick and blossom. I sometimes feel guilty that a lot of promising ideas don’t turn into anything, but less and less, really. There are so many fun new things to think about! Why limit yourself to old ideas?

Some of Ben’s comments — and some of the other stuff coming out of this brew — seem to stem from this idea that finishing or publishing games is still the ultimate ideal. And that getting social status from “being a game designer” and infinitely being in the process of “working on a game” is usurping that goal. Maybe. But the Forge “publish or perish” model of social status had a ton of problems too. Maybe taking the emphasis off of publishing and allowing folks to just design without any sort of fixed outcome in mind is okay. Maybe we need that. I know I certainly needed that and I have been much happier and more productive in both my design and play since I gave up the idea that I had to publish a game in order to get respect and attention. But now, choosing to do a bunch of casual design work without a serious intent to publish is pandering for social status? Give me a break. Apparently one designer’s attempt to escape social status games is another’s descent into status posturing.

If I have any wisdom to share with other designers — anything that’s universal and not particular to my own situation — it’s design however makes you happiest.

For me, it’s often putting together one-shot experiments or hacking existing games to play with folks at indie meetups like JiffyCon and GoPlay NW. That kind of design work is never going to accomplish anything big, but it’s what’s giving me the most pleasure right now, even though I only get to see the fruits of that design once or twice a year. But hacking and scenario/campaign design is still design work, just a different kind that gets less attention and status. I’m also enjoying just playing games that I like a lot — allow me to recommend Apocalypse World and Castle Ravenloft — and doing some minor hacking of them. Why should I care about finishing a game when there are so many fun ones out there? Mine is fun too, but I’ll get to it eventually, even if it takes me another 5 years. Is this lazy design? Sure. But it’s fun, makes me happy, and lets me ignore a lot of bullshit in the indie community because it has nothing to do with what I’m doing or what I want.

When I see people complaining about the nature of relations or social status games in the community, I can only assume that they’re in a place where they’re really unhappy with something. Honestly, in my mind, yeah there are annoyances (I get annoyed about grad school too!), but there are also plenty of great, smart, open, giving people that you can talk, design, and play with both on the internet and in person. And I’d rather focus on interacting with them and on all the design and play that excites me and makes me happy rather than the negative stuff that I can’t control. What are other people even doing, design-wise? I’m not sure I could tell you except for the folks who submit to Game Chef (which is a fair number), the folks I follow locally (Sage, Harper, Jackson, etc.), and the games that I’ve played recently. So I don’t feel like I’m in a position to tell other folks what to do.

Even if I was! I mean, I read Sage’s twitter posts about being worried that his games aren’t good enough and I see myself a few years back when I felt guilty about Geiger Counter not being done and how I was secretly a failure and everybody was disappointed in me for not living up to my true potential as ground-breaking indie game designer. But that’s just me projecting! I don’t know, really, why Sage is designing games or what kind of approach or relationship to design (as a hobby) is going to make him happy. Maybe he would be horribly frustrated by the approach that is currently making me happiest. If he’s ultimately going to feel good about himself as a designer — or whatever type, with whatever publications — he’s going to have to get there himself, just like I’ll have to eventually get there myself (really, where I’m at now is better, but not quite there). I will be as supportive as possible, of course, and I hope other folks will support me when I’m feeling terrible about things, but I can’t really figure out what’s making other designers unhappy and help them get to a better place.

In any event, that’s the hedonistic approach to design that I’m advocating right now, mostly because design was making me really unhappy during certain periods before, even after I left the Forge. It’s not always a moment-to-moment hedonism, looking for a quick fix, since sometimes you have to put your chin down and work hard in order to get a better result later. But it involves paying attention to the interactions and practices that are actively making me unhappy and trying to avoid or change them, relieving stress and making sure that I have a healthy relationship with something that’s supposed to be an enjoyable hobby, not just a separate set of social responsibilities to drag me down.

P.S. How old were Ron and Vincent when they published their first games? Yeah, I’m not there yet and still feel like I’m learning how to do this. There’s plenty of time left.

Due Vigilance: New 24-Hour Game

2011 Feb 21

Today I finished and just submitted a new 24-hour game for RPG Geek’s ongoing contest.

Due Vigilance (5-page PDF) is a Apocalypse World-influenced, “structured freeform” game about contemporary vigilantes. I’m anticipating that it’ll start out somewhat ambiguous and end up spiraling out of control, but I really want to see it in play to see whether the experience will be as strong as I suspect it might be.

I forgot to mention Blowback among the influences, but I hope Elizabeth will forgive me until I can find time to try the game out and make revisions. Also, Emily’s games about real people (Breaking the Ice, A Day in the War, even Sign in Stranger) should probably be on there too. It’s difficult to remember everybody I’m in intellectual debt to, but kinda terrible that I specifically forgot the female designers in this case. Oh! Paul’s Bacchanal should be there as well! Maybe it wasn’t just latent sexism…

Love and Kisses, Your MC

2011 Feb 19

Sage suggested it might be time for another indie game designer rap battle, but what’s the point when we all know I’m going to win again? I set a pretty low bar, believe me, but you folks gotta bring it if you want this to really be a competition.

I rock the phonics like Seattle Supersonics
you tap your mox ruby, I tap my mox onyx, then
dark ritual, let’s make it official
I cast magic missile and you’re ancient history
+3, +4, mark XP
my flow’s so golden it’s a Tier 7 MRCZ
in cultivation, don’t change the station
when I threaten badness y’all go on vacation

The Sumner: Design Sketch

2011 Feb 17

Man, partially-finished old projects are really rearing their ugly heads this week and demanding I work on them. After talking with Elizabeth about her new AW playbook project, I had to do some work on my old “terrorform” idea, which evolved through conversations with other folks into a techno-shaman achetype. Here’s a playbook design sketch with content to follow shortly.

The Final Trumpet: In Nomine + AW

2011 Feb 15

This is something I told Ryan Macklin I’d run at GoPlay NW. Really, you barely have to do any adaptation at all, which makes it really cool. I’m figuring that it’s going to be Choir/Band + Superior, and you can change your Superior but only change your Choir/Band by falling or being redeemed.

Ticket to Ride: China 1930

2011 Feb 15

Days of Wonder has a contest up for making a new map for Ticket to Ride. I’m probably not going to submit, but it got me thinking.

Sun Yatsen wanted China to have a massive rail system spanning the entire length of the former Qing Empire. Of course, most of the above plan ended up not getting built for a number of reasons, the Chinese civil war and Japanese invasion being among the more prominent. But even before that, warlords controlled much of the former Qing territory, Mongolia split off under Russian administration, and Tibet, Xinjiang, and the Southwest pretty much had to be re-invaded by the Communists to ensure that they would remain part of China after 1949. Even nowadays, nearly 100 years later, China’s rail system doesn’t quite live up to Dr. Sun’s dream:


The China’s 1930s map can be played with the normal Ticket to Ride rules (called here, the “Dinner Party” rules, after Mao Zedong’s famous assertion that a revolution is not a dinner party) or it can be played with the wartime rules that complicate matters.

Wartime Rules

You are China’s train barons, an assortment of people from a variety of backgrounds that have — through some means or other — gotten involved in building and operating rail transport in war-torn China.


During the game, you will be given the choice to ally with between 0 and 3 (i.e. all) of the military factions contending for domination over China. The three factions are the Nationalists (white sun), the Communists (red star), and the Japanese (red sun). You can, of course, choose to remain independent or allied with a local warlord, in which case you will remain independent. To indicate your factional allegiances, you will place tokens in front of you, one for each faction you have pledged loyalty to.

If, at some point, you decide to revoke or betray your alliance with a specific faction, flip that token over. Unless specifically directed by the rules, you cannot choose to ally with that faction again. However, you can choose to ally yourself with a new faction that you have not previously been associated with.

Event Cards

After each round of turns, an event card is drawn and its instructions are applied to the map. Typically, event cards will have different results depending on what allegiances various players have, so players must declare any new changes in allegiance before the event card is drawn, otherwise, they must wait until after the results of the new event have been completed before announcing changed allegiances.

Example events:

JAPANESE CAPTURE SHANGHAI: All players with rail connections to Shanghai must switch their allegiance to Japan or lose control of all rail lines starting in Shanghai to the Japanese-allied player of their choice.

COMMUNIST SABOTAGE: Every Communist-allied player chooses one section of track operated by a Nationalist-allied player. That section of track is removed from the map. On their turn, Nationalist-allied players can choose to cannibalize adjacent Nationalist-operated track (if any) to repair the break.

NATIONALIST PURGE: Every Nationalist-allied player that is currently or was formerly allied with the Communists must flee for their life. Flip over your Nationalist token.

PROFITEERING: During this next round, every player draws an additional card for each allegiance they have.


In the event deck, there are three special types of cards: NATIONALIST ADVANCE, COMMUNIST ADVANCE, and JAPANESE ADVANCE. When they occur, they are placed off to the side of the board and players with the associated allegiance draw an extra card. However, when the third card of the same type is drawn (three NATIONALIST ADVANCEs, for instance), the game is over and the Nationalist faction has triumphed.

Depending on which side has ultimately won the war, players final point totals are adjusted:
— A side you are allied to wins: +10 points.
— A side you have no relation to wins: +5 points.
— A side that you betrayed wins: -5 points.

Super Suit: Fixing XP and Difficulty

2011 Feb 8

While walking the dog this morning, I figured out how to fix the part of Super Suit that still vex me.

First, there’s no XP to spend or list of different “events” (upgrades, bosses, etc.) that you have to trigger in order. Instead, there’s just a list of things that can happen, like the MC moves in Apocalypse World.

Stuff like:
– You find a missile upgrade.
– You reach the boss chamber.
– You find an elevator, taking you deeper.

After all, the whole point of the game, really, is to use your creativity to create a really badass Metroid-style map and explore it, with the game providing enough structure to help you do that. So, basically, when you create the next room, you should just pick (or randomly roll) options off a list that make sense based on the pacing you have in mind. If you want things to get harder, then make them harder. If you think the boss should come up soon, then decide to have it come up soon.

The other thing is that the player should stop and generate the horrors’ stats by using her “foe tracker” or “xenographic analyzer” or something. So when you generate a horror, you add it to the database of enemies that you gradually build up over the course of the game. You can then choose to add another copy of a previously encountered horror to the map, rather that generating new ones each time. And it gives some logic to the idea that you stop and think about the horror before fighting it, since you’re recording its data in your log. And when you stop to generate the enemy, you can decide how difficult you want to make it, based on pacing decisions.

Perhaps, over time, it’ll become clear what the best pacing and difficulty practices are, but it’s really hard to know what they’ll be without me and some other players playing the game extensively, just based on our own “internal clocks” about what should come next. Then, perhaps we can distill those best practices into rules or XP or whatever, but that’s not really necessary for the alpha draft.

Magic Missile: Interior Spread

2011 Feb 5

Once again, I demonstrate that being involved in indie design and publishing is really just an excuse to do some pretty layout. Here’s my initial sketch of the interior of Magic Missile, complete with all the basic styles done (don’t have bulleted lists, numbered lists, or headings beyond level 2 yet).

Now with Actual Magic Missile

2011 Feb 5

Instead of doing the next concrete step on Magic Missile tonight (sending emails back to the contributors), I started on the layout instead. This is a new cover idea, but the interior is coming together too. Now… to get some content.