This is a portion of journal entries I wrote throughout my Theory & Design of Games class at HPU while I was designing a board game and reading “The Game Design Workshop.”

Entering The Game Design Workshop: Chapter 4

This is a relevant chapter to me right now, and the reason why is because of Destiny, which I’ll be discussing in relation to the material. Without a doubt, the game has near-perfect gunplay, some exhilarating firefights, substantial graphics, incredibly imaginative art direction, and an addictive, satisfying multiplayer component. Collecting new gear and weapons via random drops and completing challenges is fun as well, but you realize the way these things are obtained is unfair and broken in several ways. The magic starts to wear off as you begin to realize the grindy, repetitious nature of the game and its horribly uncreative missions. The main story is a major disappointment because – despite having an insanely deep lore to draw from – nothing mentioned is given significance. There are hardly any characters to make note of, and the ones that are in the game are unmemorable. The plot is straightforward and bare. Objectives have no real meaning or weight behind them besides, “shoot stuff to get things,” and you’re given no reason to care about anyone or anything in the game. Any interesting story elements that are expanded upon will likely be in future DLC or updates, but the core Destiny experience should have a compelling narrative on its own that motivates players to discover even more about it in the future; no one should have to defend it by saying it was supposed to have a vague story out of the gate for this reason. That’s not an excuse, but it’s weird that Destiny is still (with friends) a lot of fun despite these massive, glaring problems.

Why discuss this game in great detail? It’s an extremely difficult game to critique since it not only fails by not having dramatic elements it should have had, but also excels with other dramatic elements that it nails right on the head. For example, the enemies may feel repetitive at times, but there’s a great sense of challenge that is rewarding in its difficulty since it’s neither too easy nor unnecessarily hard. By leveling up your character at a decent pace, the game keeps up with your developing skills as you play, ensuring that there’s always a balance “between challenge and ability, frustration and boredom, to produce an experience of achievement and happiness.“ Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi said this, and she’s actually someone I heavily referred to in a paper I wrote on how immersion is created in video games, and I’m inclined to agree with a lot she has said on the concept of “flow” (which, in my opinion, is a facet of creating immersion). There are clear goals and feedback in Destiny (albeit they aren’t given meaningful “premise, character, and story” aspects to make them truly dramatic), a perfect paradox of control is in effect (you feel like a master over your character in how they control, but outcomes are usually uncertain in a good way), time goes by like lightning while playing, and so on.

In relation to the board game I’m creating, I’m worried about not having a good sense of ambiguity in regard to the outcomes of a play session. I don’t want any of the characters to be accidentally overpowered, for there to be too much reliance on chance to win, or the game to have a lack of flow in its pacing (sense the current ideas I have for player battles involves very simple mathematical calculations to keep track of health, the efficacy of a specific move, etc. For example, I’ve thought of providing an informational card to each player so he/she can refer to his/her character’s pros and cons and how they affect moves, other players’ moves on him/her, etc.

As I’ve mentioned in a previous entry, premise will play an important role in my board game. The board itself is a representation of the setting for the game, there will be some vague details (in the instruction manual, on cards, etc.) on what this setting is like, the meaning behind the characters’ names, and so forth. If this were a video game, I would make sure that there would be a more complete narrative, but since that’s not the case, I want players to form their own theories about what exactly the characters went through, where they came from, and what the setting for the game means so that they can create their own spins on the premise. As for Destiny, it certainly provides a lot of exposition, but much of it is built off a basic premise that doesn’t really go anywhere interesting despite the deep lore (as I’ve already said).

I could discuss the sections on the character and story sections, but this will do for this entry. Dramatic elements can provide so much meaning to and emotional investment for the formal elements to players, and whether those dramatic elements are bare or extensive, they can make or break any game depending on what uniquely works for it.

Entering the Game Design Workshop: Chapter 5

It’s honestly fascinating when you sit down to think that systems can be either as simple as a pen to as complex as a school. It’s really easy to see how simple systems at work, but complex ones can be utterly fascinating in how all of their elements work together in general harmony. Video games are no exception from this, as they are made up of multiple kinds of elements already discussed (formal and dramatic) that can be simple like Checkers or elaborate like World of Warcraft. Despite the differences in these games though, both of them are fun in their own ways and balanced with well-designed systems that have stood the test of time, and that is what matters in the end: “The goal of a game is to entertain its participants,” and there are endless examples of games that could be analyzed to see how they work as systems. However, much like my last post, I’m going to take a look at one game and briefly discuss it with this chapter in mind, and that game is Pokémon Y.

The system of a game is affected by its primary elements, known as objects, properties, behaviors, and relationships. In Pokémon Y, objects can range from the creatures you collect, train, and battle with to the items you use on them like potions and TMs. The various places you go and the grass you go through to encounter Pokémon could be considered objects as well (terrain). They all play extremely different roles when playing the game. Pokémon are basically your “pieces,” potions and TMs are used for the sole purpose of affecting the status of your pieces, etc.

Properties are simple enough. The stats (HP, Attack, Special Defense, etc.) of Pokémon, their movesets, and even their Natures and gender can be considered properties. Each TM is characterized by teaching a particular move. The Pokémon Center is defined by its property as a place to heal Pokémon for free. In particular, some players can be obsessed with the stats of Pokémon, worrying about the minutiae of whether or not one of their Pokémon has a certain amount of Speed points in its stats, if a certain move is better than another because it has slightly higher accuracy, etc. Behaviors include telling a Pokémon to attack or defend itself, run away from a wild Pokémon battle, etc. Even items have behaviors of sorts (?), since they can be used, discarded, or sold for money. Lastly, relationships are evident everywhere in Pokémon Y. Certain items can be given to Pokémon to hold that increase a stat, affect an opponent’s Pokémon in some way during battle, etc. There are elements of chance (accuracy) tied to moves, potions relate to Pokémon’s HP by raising it, and even the player character that moves around the world is restricted to rules in their relationship to the environment (bicycles cannot be ridden inside buildings, you can only move in 8 directions on foot, and so on).

The section on system dynamics is also important in establishing how important it is to understand that if you can easily take away components of a system without it being affected, then it’s likely not a system at all, but a collection. All the major and even minor components complement each other in a system to prevent catastrophic results. For example, if you removed some Pokémons’ abilities to change the weather in a battle, the game would largely be unaffected. However, if you remove restrictions on the number of times moves that increase a stat(s) can be used, this could result in unfair battles and an imbalance in the move pool.

The economies in Pokémon Y are hardly as advanced as they can be in MMOs, but they are definitely here. Currency is primarily earned by defeating trainers and gym leaders scattered throughout the game, but can also be acquired by selling items to the Poké Mart. With this currency, you can purchase anything like potions, Poké Balls, TMs, or even tip NPCs that provide some kind of service for you (however, this appears to have no effect whether you give them money or not). However, an interesting spin on this is that items can act as currency in a way. Certain NPCs can give you an item or teach your Pokémon something, but in return, they don’t ask for money, but an item (or a specific number of items).

There’s a kind of bartering going on here, and this can be seen as well in the trading of Pokémon with NPCs or other players who play Pokémon X or Y (what the chapter calls “player to player and player to system” trading under the “Complex Market” section). The NPC trades are usually pointless, but trading with other players is interesting in that they don’t just trade Pokémon for mutual benefit, but will also be generous in giving them an item or Pokémon they may not have as an altruistic gesture. I’ve done this myself and others have for me. However, the Global Trade Center is another story, with strangers usually offering up fairly uncommon Pokémon in exchange for rare legendary Pokémon, which is absolutely ridiculous (and a reason why people rarely use this feature). There’s even a “metaeconomy […] in which characters and game objects are sold between players in real-world markets.” I have personally seen rare Pokémon (such as specially trained ones and “shinies”) go for good prices on eBay, which is fascinating to see in how far people are willing to go to catch ‘em all.

My board game would take more time to explain and isn’t developed enough yet to warrant discussing how its system functions on a more intricate level. But the one thing I am working on now is how the distribution of cards will be balanced. Players will start out with none (or perhaps 2-4) and only gain a card when they land on marked spots on the board, so I’m trying to figure out how to balance out a player acquiring too many cards by chance and winning with the advantages this gives him/her. Right now I have two cards in play that force an opponent to shuffle all of their cards back into the deck and draw only 2 in return. The probability of one of the other three players using this move against someone who has too many cards is likely, and would mix things up in an interesting way. This is only a possibility though, but I like the idea and – going back to the chapter – how the material this week spurs me to think about these issues.

Outside The Game Design Workshop: Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor: All Those Who Wander (Polygon)

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Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor is set to release in the US in a matter of days, but the reviews have actually begun to pour out from video game journalists. It’s not often when a developer and publisher will allow this to happen unless they’re really confident about the final product, and it appears that confidence has been placed well. Scores range in the 8-9 out of 10 range, which has surprised a good amount of skeptics that doubted this game’s potential since Lord of the Rings games don’t have a remarkable history. But why is Shadow of Mordor important, and how does it relate to the material we’ve read in the last couple of weeks? The game has a particular feature called the “Nemesis System” that Polygon reviewer Philip Kollar critiques in adequate detail, and Chapters 4 and 5 are what relate to his comments.

The Nemesis System is a result of next-gen possibilities, simply put. How it works is that it categorizes dozens of Orcs based on hierarchy that you face in the land of Mordor. Depending on whom you take out or fail to kill, you will either disrupt or increase the influence of the Orcs’ power as they’re building up themselves to be Sauron’s army. It’s like a giant assassination list of targets, but these aren’t “nameless enemies [to] cut down by the dozens. […] The Orcs here are smart and have their own personalities.” Indeed, that is what is so incredible about the system. It personalizes enemies by giving them randomly generated names, dispositions, weaknesses, and so forth. And not only that, Orcs you encounter that you fail to kill can come back to haunt or stumble upon you by chance, and they will remember what you did to them, how you reacted in their battle against them, etc. Kollar talks about how he formed memorable relationships and narrative-driven battles with his enemies because of the Nemesis System, which is something he doesn’t expect from games like Shadow of Mordor, making it a “special experience.”

There’s more to the Nemesis System than this, but this adequately gets across how innovative it is in terms of how games are the best medium to offer open-ended experiences that feel uniquely tailored by a player’s actions (an example of Csikszentmihalyi’s “paradox of control” that is a part of “flow”). However, the most pivotal parts of chapter 4 that apply to this are the sections on Character and Story. The latter part of the former topic mentions how “believable AI […] is a holy grail of game design these days both for player-controlled characters and nonplayer characters. Believable enemy and nonplayer characters in action games can make for more exciting, replayable game levels” (emphasis added). This is exactly what Shadow of Mordor accomplishes with its Nemesis System because it adapts to how you interact with enemies in meaningful, surprising ways. Kollar provides a perfect example…

“In another instance, I became overwhelmed and ran away from a berserker named Ratanak the Thunderer. Every time Ratanak and I crossed paths afterward, he was certain to remind me of my cowardice,” he says. “He even developed a trait that made him more likely to hunt me down of his own volition, which led him to popping up at the worst times, trying to impede my progress mid-mission. It would have been frustrating if it wasn’t so d**n cool.”

In terms of chapter 5, the Orcs aren’t one-dimensional foes that are mere obstacles. They are objects with properties (names, skills, history, etc.) you come to uniquely recognize in your own game experience that realistically behave to how you change the world and their lives for better (by them claiming victory over you and advancing in rank) or for worse (by wounding or scaring them). These Orcs’ relationships to the elements of the game – to the Nemesis System in particular – are too intricate and numerous to include here, but such examples are their connection to the Orc hierarchy and how it’s affected by your actions; the ways in which you personally deal with Orcs with the power of a Wraith (by killing, “enslaving,” or freeing them) highlights your heavy relationship in how the game develops over time; the environments of the game are tied to the Nemesis System in determining where certain Orcs will turn up, and so on.

The Nemesis System in itself spawns emergent, dynamic situations that are unique to each player. Although the main story is not affected by your actions to these Orcs, each encounter you have with an Orc in Shadow of Mordor spins a special tale that only you can have, as Kollar demonstrates in his gameplay experience with Ratanak the Thunderer. Chapter 4 talks about how “game designers believe that there is better potential for use of story in games if the story emerges from gameplay rather than from a predetermined structure,” and what Kollar says at the end of his review makes Shadow of Mordor seem like a direct response to that challenge issued by game designers.

“Most video games choose to either tell you a story or give you a world in which you can create your own stories; very rarely are these two paths mixed, and even more rarely with any success,” he says. “Shadow of Mordor is that ultimate rarity. It tells a fun little story that would be enough to hold up most games on its own. But it also provides all of the tools to ensure that the most interesting tales to come out of the game will be the ones that were not scripted.”

Entering the Game Design Workshop: Chapter 6

I have an idea for a book. It’s an awesome idea that involves a world composed of appealingly unique, intelligent societies with rich histories and diverse racial and cultural differences that live in a fantasy world of epic proportions. It is a land that is both sublime in beauty and afflicted with unimaginable evils. I won’t divulge into the more distinct, unique details.

It’s something I want to think about and piece together over the next (hopefully!) decades of my life until – after plenty of life experience, knowledge, and wisdom that will no doubt shape my imagination – I am truly ready to make this dream of mine a reality some day.

After writing a cringe-worthy (though useful) draft of the first few chapters, I naturally thought about how I would end this story. This was something on my mind for a couple of years, but I never put the effort into conceiving any ideas. One night I was lying in my bed staring at the ceiling wondering what on earth I could do with this ending. I was watching a particular TV show during this time period and was greatly inspired by its storytelling and impressive handling in maintaining a coherent continuity, despite having incredibly convoluted lore and concepts to deal with that stack up episode after episode. The concepts and ideas this TV show deals with…my eyes went wide. My brain fired up in a frenzy, thinking about one way my story could end and what characters it would involve and where it would take place and so on. Ideas raced through my mind as I turned on my computer, furiously typing as soon as I could. I read and reread what I had typed out, noticing major and insignificant plot holes that I fixed by switching around, taking out, and further explaining stuff. I closed my eyes and tried to understand the logical outworking of how all these events with the story’s end work. Do they make sense? Are there any contradictions? Would this work with these two characters? I sat in my chair for 20-30 minutes asking these questions to myself. I still ponder what I wrote from time to time. I have yet to notice any problems with it…it’s as perfect as I can get it, and even still, that worries me.

Now my rambling makes much more sense, doesn’t it? This was one of the greatest “Aha!” moments I’ve ever had in my life, and it came out of nowhere while I was thinking about a TV show. It may not have to do with video games, but this whole chapter on brainstorming, how to produce creativity and imagination, and even how to do these things alone or in a group has been an insightful read.

People should definitely keep their eyes open to everything as the author suggests; you never know we’re you’ll find inspiration, and I know that to be true with various ideas I’ve come up with for school projects and blog posts I’ve written here. Although paying attention to video games is an obvious one, I think that “[Digging] deeply into the formal, dramatic, and dynamic elements of the games you play” is more specific advice that a lot of gamers who want inspiration don’t do. Sure, having fun is what they’re for, but you can find so much brilliance and creativity in critically analyzing a game and taking careful note of your emotional, personal experiences with them. My board game is heavily inspired in tone and theme by the intentionally vague yet gravitating stories of the Dark Souls games. The turn-based battles players have takes cues from Pokémon and Dungeons and Dragons. The monster in the center of my board game that can kill players was, well, actually a general concept I came up with before eating lunch one day! I thought to myself, “What if there was something in the center of the board players went around?” I did a quick sketch, fleshed out the idea to make it a dangerous threat that players could pass through if they didn’t want to fight other players (and be rewarded in another way for taking this risk), and now it’s a part of the game. There you go!

I would also like to mention the day the class created a game after an hour from the objects we were given. That was the most creatively stimulating activity I’ve done yet, and it inspired me to figure out how I’m going to work out the rules and simplify some of my ideas while adding more depth to the fun experiences my board game will offer. That session really applies to pages 151-155 and how we should (and shouldn’t have) done during that time. We really stated the challenge, didn’t criticize, had a playful environment, and went for a ton of ideas while making our game. It was a “shout it out” session, too, since we just went crazy and said whatever came to our minds, which resulted in a weird yet interesting board game that’s…innovative, if you want to put it that way! Anyway, it was a blast, and reading this chapter has helped me reflect on that time, motivating me to get a move on with taking in any possible inspirations and feedback from those around me on what I’ve got so far.

Entering The Game Design Workshop: Chapter 7

“Nothing is a waste if you learn from it.”

I’ve taken this wisdom from one of my favorite songs to heart. Many people actually don’t think this way, but even though I feel as though I’ve squandered my time, personal projects, friendships, and more, I’ve learned from all of these mistakes. I can come out a better person from all of these things if I choose to move on and learn from them, and you could say that’s the message of chapter 7 with the topic of “prototyping.”

I have a good idea of what the formal, dramatic, and dynamic elements of my board game are, what I want to accomplish overall, and how I’m going to go about achieving my goals here. However, prototyping is where I’ve met an obstruction on the road to making this game. I’ve found that it’s hard to focus on playing the game for myself, keeping track of all the minor and major things that will cause balancing issues, using prototype material in a quick, efficient way, and so on. It worries me because I’ve already come up with all of these rules and features that seem to work in my head, but I feel as though I’m going to be making a couple of drastic changes and additions to the game once I get the ball rolling with a tighter and more advanced approach to prototyping, which I’m sure I’ll be able to adequately accomplish upon all of the great tips and lessons this chapter affords, especially the basic stuff. Don’t act like you’re creating the final design, focus on gameplay and rules first instead of aesthetics, be open to constant change and player feedback, try different kinds of prototypes with other materials, and so on.

What’s most incredible about the process is what you discover things that could affect the core of your game’s rules and/or features, layout, etc. Playtesting groups, working with other people and listening to their ideas, and keeping an open mind to other inspirations all have the possibility of shaping a game for the better. While you may run into a lot of dead ends and unfinished work, you’re still building on what does and doesn’t work for the end product. Chaim Gingold says these may seem like failures, but “the difference between practice and failure is simply a matter of attitude.” Start small, be wise with where you spend your time, always ask questions to others and even yourself, and isolate problems to uncover hidden issues…by doing thee things during prototyping, he assures anyone will eventually find success, much like Richard Garfield found with Magic: The Gathering.

The last section on “Building the Physical Prototype” is useful in that I’ll be referring to it over the next few weeks while working on my board game. Maintaining a simple, basic foundation, working on what’s essential – ignoring what’s mostly peripheral – to the game’s framework (I love the line that says “You can add rules without adding features, but you can add a feature without changing or adding rules”), and refining the features to make the game more enjoyable are what I need to pinpoint. I love the ideas and concepts I’ve got going, but is my game fun? It may seem like a ridiculous question, but this is my primary concern. Even though I become excited about further developing and playing it, I must realize that’s not a reliable indicator my game will be great until it goes through the ringer, so to speak.