This is the final 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.”

Outside The Game Design Workshop: Analysis – Game Resolution As The Intersection Of Art, Science, And Business (Game Informer)

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On the very first page of chapter 1 of Game Design Workshop, Fullerton says, “It’s far too easy to get caught up in a game’s graphics, story line, or new features and forget that what makes a game great is solid gameplay.” Who can disagree with that? Gameplay is what makes games primarily memorable and fun, whereas visuals, superfluous mechanics, or extra modes usually take a backseat. However, since the advent of the PS3, Xbox 360, and Wii console generations, there has been an incredible surge of people who care more and more about a game’s graphics. It’s to the point where they will immediately buy one version over another over negligible performance differences, or even not purchase the game depending on if it runs in 60 frames per second or not. Those seem like unreasonable conclusions to come to, but I’ve seen a host of people rage over this issue, which is why I think game developers should be more concerned about the specific issue of resolution from here on out because there’s a fairly decent chunk of profitability that depends on it.

In recent events, Gameinformer editor Mike Futter noticed that gamers seem very concerned over game resolution (which he backs up with the view counts of the site’s articles on the issue). It’s actually affected the development of games, with Ubisoft Montreal equalizing the PS4 and Xbox One’s resolutions to avoid controversy, which is ironically what they brought upon by making this decision. On the other hand, BioWare revealed in the following days that Dragon Age: Inquisition would run in 1080p on the PS4 and 900p on the Xbox One. The developer was honest in saying that they pushed each console to its limits, and the PS4 was thankfully not limited in its performance, and neither the Xbox One.

Futter notes how this actually has an impact in several areas. Artistically, developers may want to create their games with certain graphical qualities in mind that better represent the visual style they’re shooting for. The Order: 1886 is a perfect example of this. The developer of this game wants to shoot for 30 frames per second instead of 60 to achieve a “filmic look,” but this has caused a lot of controversy, too, among gamers. The numbers of graphical details (1080p, 30 frames per second, etc.) has a psychological influence on players, even if they likely wouldn’t notice differences across platforms if they were put to the test. And lastly, all of this contributes to how it affects business. In consumers’ purchasing decisions, they usually consider what system their friends are playing on more, which one has the better exclusive games, and so on. But Futter adds to this, saying, “resolution might be the element that leads someone to choose the PlayStation 4 version over the otherwise identical experience for Xbox One. Platform holders derive licensing fees for games sold (the specifics of these arrangements are complex and vary from deal to deal). Overwhelming uptake on one platform versus the other has a financial implication for Sony and Microsoft.”

He then makes this reasonable conclusion. “The consumer might not care about resolution themselves, but still might be indirectly impacted. If enough friends have been swayed, there is a compelling case for even someone disaffected by the resolution discussion to make a choice. As more players choose for one of these two reasons, there is the potential for real business impact.”

Of course, I don’t think the book’s author would disagree with this. Although gameplay is paramount, the secondary features and aspects of a game all have roles in its appeal, but I think she does accidently underplay the importance of elements like story and visuals. For example, Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days, Assassin’s Creed III, and Final Fantasy X were games I played primarily for the story, whereas gameplay was secondary. This doesn’t mean I would’ve still played them if the gameplay were bad (in fact, I wouldn’t have), but I wanted to experience their universes and characters above all else. I would even say that some indie games like Journey, Dear Esther, and The Unfinished Swan swayed me to play them due to their gorgeous art direction over gameplay.

Nevertheless, gameplay is undoubtedly a necessary component of a game to nail down. If it’s not meant to be as engrossing or “fun” as experiencing the story or visuals, it should always be solid, responsive, functional, and noticeably engaging to some degree. But when it comes to my board game, the rules and flow of playing the game are front and center, whereas the visual presentation and backstory of it are most definitely secondary. However, it’s interesting to consider…do people play some board games primarily to experience a story (Dungeons & Dragons, perhaps?) or something else? Despite if a board game is fun, could its theme(s) or even its included (or excluded) objects/aspects deter people from buying it (much like that version of Monopoly that people were furious over that didn’t include one of the classic game pieces)? I would say yes to both of these questions, but – of course – this is a contextual issue that varies from game to game.

Entering The Game Design Workshop: Chapter 9

The process of making a board game is like war. As the sole commandeer, my board game is both my battle strategy and army. What is unconventional and risky, but could prove decisive in garnering success? How have others fallen and risen before me in history on the game design battlefield? What are timeless and unique elements I can implement into my game, and how would they hold up against the scrutiny and current trends of people today? These questions and more are what I have ruminated over more than several times, and time is running out to finalize my strategy. How can I guarantee victory in winning over scrutinizing players – my ironic enemies, if you will – by overwhelming them with fun, solid design, and clear rules? My part of the planning is done. It’s time to run the simulations by conducting playtesting sessions, which will be my toughest challenge yet.

One thing I knew before reading chapter 9 (yes, I skipped over 8 since I will not be creating a video game) is that I will need to be very receptive and indifferent to a degree with my game. This is how I can “bring fresh eyes to the project [to] uncover things [I] have not considered” and acquire “objective, broad criticism that [will take my] design to the next level,” as Fuller writes on page 250. Although I do attach myself to my work when I believe I have created something that’s genuinely good, I’m also quick to be harsh on it whenever I feel something is not up to my standards or simply doesn’t sit right with me. This is all because I’m a writer and critic.

Naturally, I try to judge games fairly and honestly just as much as my own creations.  My board game, Battle of The Ages, is something I’m proud of in regard to what I’ve come up with so far, but I’m also intensely skeptical about how the rules will play off each other, if the playing field is balanced enough, and if it’s, well, fun, which I’ve mentioned before as a concern. I think the game will be fun. Friends and acquaintances have said it sounds like fun, including one who approved what I’m developing after giving me a series of questions to answer as I explained the rules to him. I’m confident the core structure is sound and permanently settled. However, I’m worried many of the extraneous/semi-important features will need to be revised or tweaked, but I want to hear this. I want to “embrace the criticism” and “hear the bad news now [rather] than later,” even if it hurts me.

The rest of the chapter offered some great tips I’ll be sure to apply to my own playtesting session, such as how to conduct one by having a warm-up discussion, final discussion of the game experience, etc.  I’ll be sure to take plenty of notes in a more passive, objective role as I observe and interact with my playtesters before, during, and after the session. Questions I would like to ask would involve what emotions they all felt while playing it, if it would be something they would recommend to others or specific people, what they liked most, what they disliked, and so on. Generally, I plan to set aside 4 hours to have one hour and a half session with four people I don’t or barely know, and another session in the same timeframe with people I know pretty well.  My goal is to primarily understand what works and doesn’t work with my board game; I will not be overly concerned with the minutia of slightly altering minor game features, obsessing over which cards to include and exclude, and so on. Of course, I would like to do more, but this will prove adequate in helping me establish the main issues I must fix and stuff I need to remove or add to enrich the playing experience. With a hopeful, final playtesting session with a group of close friends later on in November and the completion of the art for the board, characters, and cards, I’m on the brink of perfecting and seeing through my game to the best of my ability. Now it’s time to see this through to achieve sweet victory.

Entering The Game Design Workshop: Chapter 10

Try as anyone might, there is no way game designers can see all of the flaws in their creations. It’s certainly possible to lay down a dependable and working foundation and structure, but even though some balancing and issues can be detected by logical thinking and by discussing it with a team (or friends), the realm of playtesting unveils flaws that seem so obvious, so hidden, and so bizarre that it leaves game developers dumbfounded. With my board game, the foundation (the core, defining components of the game) and structure (the overlying rules and form that give shape and coherence to the game experience) seemed foolproof to me because every loophole I saw was filled in until I discovered no more. However, this still troubled me, especially since simulating battles and keeping track of data while playing the game myself weren’t possible, shrouding possible errors from me in those areas. Upon beginning the refinement stage, I was not disappointed in playtesters finding issues I would’ve never discovered on my own.

With loopholes, one of the primary ones was that the center of the board (the Unknown’s Lair, which is an area that helps players to escape from battles and earn cards, but they gamble losing a life and all of their cards in a dice roll). Someone figured out that there was not enough risk in doing this, so anyone could exploit (but not completely) this feature and gain a whole bunch of cards. Deciding whether or not to escape from a possible battle was a no-brainer; going through the center of the board was nearly always the best option. In retrospect, this isn’t necessarily a loophole, but it could be overused to a large degree, ruining the intentional balance of risk/reward here. In a second playtesting session with different people, one participant realized that one of the primary moves in battle, Counter, was an overpowered move that could theoretically be used for every turn with the user always coming out on top. Both of these things had to be adjusted to prevent these problems from rising, which seem to be like appropriate fixes thus far.

Balancing is a major part of my board game due to the asymmetrical and symmetrical nature of how the characters relate to one another. Everyone has the same basic moveset for battles, but they all have differing pros and cons in regard to their stats, “Legend” moves, etc. One character is more powerful against another, one is weaker, one is fairly neutral to another, etc. Every matchup against every character worked well in concept, but playtesting revealed that The Lonely Knight’s con of removing 2 points from all dice rolls was a frustrating penalty, especially since the character’s chances of surviving the Unknown, landing Heavy Attacks, and so on were unintentional penalties that made him a less desirable character to choose, so lessening the impact of this con and being more specific about how many points to remove in certain situations with dice rolls (movement costs the Knight 2 points, whereas chance costs 1 point) was beneficial. More advantages were given to two characters that had pros that weren’t as beneficial as “+2 attack power” or “2+ Agility,” so they were slightly expanded on to make them more appealing and balanced in terms of variables.

Other minor changes, removals, and additions that have been made to the game, but making a list of all these would be unnecessary. What’s important to take away from this stage of game development of any kind is that designers should expect and be open to the criticism that ‘s bound to come in from others. However, feedback should be taken with skepticism since people’s ideas on how to improve a game aren’t always beneficial and could hurt it. As the chapter concludes though, a lot of choosing what to change and keep – whether it be seemingly negligible rules or even the fundamental aspects of the game – “will depend on your gut. […] Intuition is both a gift and a learned skill. The more you design, the finer your gut instincts will become,” the author says. “You will know when a game is out of balance without a tester raising an eyebrow, and you will be able to spot a loophole or dead end immediately and implement the proper fix.” While I like to think I had very minimal loopholes and dead ends, there were certainly multiple problems that needed to be solved, and a couple playtesting sessions have already made it a better game.

Entering The Game Design Workshop: Chapter 11

When I formed the primary aspects of my game and what it would require of players during gameplay, I worried that it wouldn’t be fun from the get-go, which I’ve mentioned before. It required keeping track of stats and stat changes, modifying the usefulness of abilities based on acquired cards, and doing basic arithmetic to calculate the effectiveness of attacks, defending, and so on. My vision for Battle of the Ages is to have a traditional board game that incorporates some of the more complicated and advanced gameplay found in tabletop RPGs, serving as a bridge between the two audiences where they can find common interest and fun in a board game that appeals to them both. But I worried that finding this middle ground diluted any fun to be found in boring battles where players crunch numbers (an accessibility issue) with nothing interesting happening with movement around the board. But I was not entirely pessimistic. I had my reasons for the design of the game and how players would have fun, and chapter 11 helps me define how I intentionally (and even accidentally) tried to make it as fun as possible.

The first section of this chapter comes out with guns blazing in its explanations on how challenge, play, and story are designed to be engaging. Challenge was particularly interesting since it applies most to what I wanted to make solid about the game experience. There are multiple goals (to accrue cards, kill other players, gain “Sorcery,” survive by going through the Unknown’s Lair, etc.) that all contribute to the ultimate goal of being the last Warrior on the board with the most player kills. The game is highly competitive by nature (pitting four players in a free-for-all, where teamwork is never beneficial), can be played with personal goals set by players (go to the “Sanctioned Spots” as much as possible, target only one player to battle against, and so forth), and encourages interesting choices (play special cards in unexpected or brilliant moments, taking risks (either with battle or by going through the Unknown’s Lair) that could either be very rewarding or dooming.

I wouldn’t say that there’s an element of more difficult things to learn as you keep playing, but I suppose that players who want a challenge could form strategies on whom to attack in what order, what paths to take, and whatnot. However, the more direct application of this element in video games (that is, presenting the player with hard skills or trials to master) is a topic worthy of discussion. I talk enough about my board game anyway! Batman: Arkham City and Super Smash Bros. are prime examples of “exercising difficult skills” because anyone can play them and have just as much fun, but there are more moves and abilities for players looking for a challenge that require greater reflexes, strategic planning, and a deeper knowledge of enemies’ patterns and weaknesses. It’s no walk in the park to become an expert in either game (especially Super Smash Bros., which requires months – even years – of practice to be a master), but the payoff is ever so gratifying to perform and show off.

The idea of choice is such a compelling topic. Games fail at times with the element of choice, like Call of Duty multiplayer. There may be a plethora of guns with different pros and cons, but there are always those one or two weapons that are objectively the best, and anyone not using them is at a disadvantage; there’s not much choice in this scenario to use something else. But then there are games like The Walking Dead, which implements all sorts of tough, difficult choices that need to be made. The end of Season 2 presents players with a scenario (won’t say due to spoilers) that has elements of being an uninformed, informed, dramatic, weighted, immediate, and long-term decision all at the same time. Everything leads up to this, and what you know, don’t know, feel, think, believe, and plan in this moment is a true dilemma that has equally good and bad outcomes. As for my board game, there are several rare cards that must be used sparingly, and players have to take into account when to use them because they could save their life or help them kill someone else. They mostly involve critical (life and death), important (direct and immediate impact), and minor (small impact, direct or indirect) consequences, as the pyramid diagram shows on page 319.

While my board game is practically complete, these final chapters are allowing me to reflect on various aspects of it and if I still need to alter anything. The process is exciting and nerve-wracking in that there could still be something I missed, but that’s all part of the risks of game design. Where there is success, there is bound to be failure to some degree. It’s just a matter of mitigating the impact of the latter.