Why Do We Play?

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What can these handsome faces tell us about why we play?

 

Introduction:
I’ve often talked about how games are emotional experiences in my past blogs but I’ve never really written about it exclusively so today I want to talk about and examine that in depth.  Why do we play, and why is it important that we do?

More than fun:
Most people, when asked why they play a certain game, would respond something along the lines of “because it’s fun”.  There is something deeper than that though going on whenever we play games and so fun is a somewhat poor word to describe the experience in depth. The truth is play, whether it’s swinging on a swing set or giving yourself a headache over the rules for Advanced Squad Leader is a highly emotional experience. For the most part that experience is a one of emotional enjoyment, if playing elicited a negative response we wouldn’t be doing it after all. That emotional enjoyment can be a personal one or a social one. Play also allows us to access and improve our creativity, motor skills, problem-solving skills, and social skills depending on the type of play. It can also elicit feelings of competition, anger, or unfairness. As we can see there is so much more than simply “fun” going on behind scenes.  Indeed play is an integral part of being human and an important part of mental health. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy after all. Then next thing you know you’ll be chopping down bathroom doors and we don’t want that.

Different types of enjoyment:
It’s important to note that as individuals what brings us enjoyment will differ from person to person.  However, the types of play we get emotional enjoyment from can be defined by somewhat broad groups. Below are some of these groups.

-Exploration taps into the joy of discovery or finding something new.  For many people, there isn’t anything greater than this. Seeing what’s in that cave, or checking out some ancient ruins.  Of course, an important part of this type of enjoyment is that the discovery is worth the effort. There’s a fine balance between it wasn’t worth it and the discovery being too easy to find.

-Skill-based enjoyment is my preferred term for those who enjoy playing on some competitive level. I have found the majority of competitive players are less concerned about winning and more concerned with improving their skill. Anecdotally I find no joy in playing a game designed towards this type of emotional output against someone I can beat with ease. It is the act of winning well rather than the act of winning itself that elicits the joy. In fact, this type of enjoyment can be had with or without other people to play with.  A great example of this would be games like Dark Souls, where the point of the game is to master the gameplay and overcome difficult challenges.

-Social enjoyment is perhaps the number one type of enjoyment people experience when playing games. Humans are highly social and sharing our joy generally increases that joy on a personal level. It is why games with somewhat thin gameplay can still be highly enjoyable. When people play a game like Cards Against Humanity, for example, they aren’t playing to win or master the game as the mechanics simply don’t allow for that type of gameplay.  Instead, they are experiencing humorous moments with their friends.  Things like skill mastery, winning and losing take a back seat to shared experiences.

-Story based enjoyment is certainly a thing, and story as a gameplay mechanic is nothing new.  Even before we had walking simulators there were text-based adventures. While these games often also combined exploration, certainly more than some walking simulators do, the story that unfolded was just as important as the discoveries to be had. It’s a bit like reading a good book but having some input into what the output will be. In fact, one of the earliest iterations of a game that brings story based enjoyment would be the Lone Wolf book series, in those books you read passages but then made choices which often had widely different consequences.

This list is not meant to be exhaustive and most play actually combines several types of enjoyment, for example, most roleplaying games combine exploration and storytelling. The important thing to know is that there’s so much more than the ubiquitous “fun” going on when we play games.

Designed for experiences:
From a designer standpoint, it is important to understand the types of experiences people have when they play games. When someone plays a game they aren’t experiencing the mechanics, they are experiencing how that game makes them feel. Is it giving them emotional joy or has it created a negative experience?  In fact, players will often believe games that are mechanically very different but give a similar emotional experience, share more mechanical similarities than they really do. So a designers job is to try and create the correct experience for their target audience, they do this through observed playtesting and then adjusting the mechanics. So really whether a designer knows it or not they are creating experiences and the mechanisms of the game are merely a means towards that end.

The power of negative experiences:
Much of our memories have emotions attached to them and negative emotions elicit a stronger memory than positive ones.  Interestingly enough a person can have a great experience and at the end of that experience, something unpleasant could ruin the whole thing. An example would be going on a vacation for five days and having a great time the first four days but the last day is just terrible, so you remember the entire vacation as a negative experience. This sort of thing can also happen when we play games, a strong negative experience can cause us to declare a game as objectively terrible, despite the fact that as players we are not really equipped to judge a games design in any objective sense. Even designers can have great difficulty stepping away from their own emotional experiences when attempting to analyze a game’s design. Beyond that these strong negative emotions can cause us to not want to try new things, an example would be my own unwillingness to try games with worker placement mechanics.  My remembered experiences with worker placement games are usually those of sheer boredom, due to this I simply assume any future game I play with that mechanic will cause me to be bored as well. There’s a good chance that this may not be true, but because like most people I highly value my time to have some social enjoyment with my friends I am averse to taking the risk of a wasted afternoon.

Conclusion:
While a player may not need to have as an in-depth understanding of why we play games and what we get out of it as a designer should, it is important to have some understanding in my opinion. Knowing that when you play a game you are doing it because it brings you emotional enjoyment will help you empathize with people who enjoy things you may not.  Going back to the example of my distaste for the past worker placement games I’ve played, I can still understand why other people play those games. They are having “fun”, while it may not be my fun as the right inputs aren’t there for me, the right inputs are there for them. And that sort of mutual respect and understanding makes us all better players and friends. At the end of the day lets just let each other have our own emotional enjoyment.

Top 5 Games of 2019 (Predictions)

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I’m slaying this list like Doom Guy slaying a possessed

 

Introduction:
I’m predicting what the top 5 games of 2019 will be and since I’m right 100% of the time 60% of the time you can be sure that this list is both exhaustive and accurate.  You could even place bets on it! So here they are in order from number five to number one. I mean it’s totally not just a list of games I’m most looking forward to…

#5 Imperator: Rome

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Look at that sexy Roman

Chances are if I said the words Grand Strategy the first thing that would come to mind is Paradox Interactive, then you might think about all that DLC you’ll complain about but buy anyway. Seriously though Paradox makes perhaps some of the best Grand Strategy games out there and Rome is probably the most popular time periods for people to try their hand at being an armchair general in. So I’ve no doubt this one will knock it out of the park and if you’ve been keeping up with the dev diary you’ll know it’s looking amazing. The only reason I’m not putting this higher is Grand Strategy still remains a bit of a niche genre.

Studio: Paradox Interactive
Genre: Grandest of Strategies
Release Date: April 25th
Platform: PC
Link: Imperator: Rome

#4 Days Gone

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Daryl decided to jump to a better IP

Man oh man is April gonna be sweet!  While I think the Zombie genre is super played out, in general, there are still gems that come out of it.  One is Korean period drama Kingdom on Netflix (seriously if you haven’t watched this yet stop what you are doing and go see what a competent zombie show is all about).  The other gem is the PlayStation Exclusive Days Gone.  Open World Action Adventure games have been hot since it was too dangerous for Link to go it alone, and PS4 Exclusive Action Adventure games rarely miss the mark.  I mean seriously have you played Horizon Zero Dawn or Spiderman! Don’t believe me go check out the gameplay video for this bad boy right here *slaps roof of YouTube* Days Gone mini gameplay vid.

Studio: SIE Bend Studio
Genre: Action Adventure Zombie Slayer
Release Date: April 26th
Platform: PS4 (thank goodness I bought my son one a few years ago)
Link: Days Gone

#3 Total War: Three Kingdoms

 

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I mean just look at those awards

The ever-popular Total War series is actually branching out into a new time period.  That alone should tell you this game is going to be good and don’t get me wrong I love Romans, Shoguns, and the Black Plague as much as the next person but there’s a lot of cool historical periods in a lot of cool areas of the world out there.  This happens to take place during one of the coolest and if you are like me your already familiar with the period because you played the shit out of Romance on the SNES. I’m also really looking forward to a return of more robust systems for politics and the like in a TW game.  I loved Warhammer and its simpler approach was certainly appropriate to the IP but now I want potatoes with my meat! Three Kingdoms is looking like it will put you in a coma with all those carbed out potatoes it’s dropping with this one. The best part is you can lose hours of sleep playing it a full month+ before you lose hours of sleep playing Imperator, one more turn amirite!

Studio: Creative Assembly
Genre: Not as Grand but still Grand Strategy but with an RTS flow
Release Date: March 7th
Platform: PC
Link: Total War: Three Kingdoms

#2 DOOM ETERNAL

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The only thing bigger than this gun is the Doomslayer’s  rage

After playing Doom 2016 I came to realize that I had been represented in a video game for the first time in history.  This guy really got me, he was nothing but molten rage and a fist full of guns and just like my real life he spent most of his time slaying demons.  Seriously though while I heard the multiplayer experience wasn’t that great Doom 2016 basically resuscitated the single player FPS experience.  It did it in amazing fashion too, the game is balls to the wall from start to finish.  Sort of like the movie Fury Road they only put pauses in the action so you don’t die from intensity overdose. Having watched the gameplay vids for Doom Eternal it seems they’ve decided killing you with intensity is actually ok. From grappling onto demons’ faces to seeing the actual look of terror (which was only hinted at in the first one) written on those same faces as you glory kill them, this game looks outright amazing.

Studio: id Software
Genre: Face Melting Action FPS
Release Date: Some time in 2019 (AKA not soon enough)
Platform: PC, XBox One, PS4, Nintendo Switch
Link: Slayer’s Club (no really that’s the name of the site)

#1 Cyberpunk 2077

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Back in 1988 game designer, Mike Pondsmith released the much beloved Cyberpunk 2020 pen and paper roleplaying game.  Back in 2012 CD Projekt Red of Witcher fame announced Cyberpunk 2077 and there was a lot of excitement and then all mention of it seemed to disappear. Then after CD Projekt was done with their Witcher Magnum Opus The Wild Hunt they hit us like a freight train with Cyberpunk updates and OMG does this game look amazing.  CD Projekt Red makes roleplaying with actual tough choices and not the obvious this is a good choice and this is a bad choice color wheel dialogue. They also don’t pull punches, instead, they punch you right in the damn gut and when you fall down they kick you over and over again while you are on the ground.  Oddly after the emotional beating their storylines give you, you just ask for more.  Why? Because it’s amazing storytelling. If I were to rag on one thing about their Witcher series is that the combat isn’t really great in any of them, though by number three it’s so improved you’ll think it’s great. After watching the 48-minute gameplay vid that CD Projekt dropped I can say not only does this game look to bring that same amazing storytelling but the combat is just draw droppingly awesome looking. I really can’t put it into words I can only say if you haven’t watched this video, watch it here WATCH THIS VIDEO NOW. Speaking of which I can barely sit through a 5-minute video let alone 48-minutes.  Yet this was so amazing I was entirely glued to my seat with my mouth hanging wide open the whole time. There’s also a lot of new features in this one that CD Projekt hasn’t done before.  A lot more stealth, looks more truly open world than even Witcher 3, vehicles, FPS gameplay, and you can make your own character this time around! Not that I don’t love Geralt. I am really hoping this drops in 2019 as all signs seem to point to it doing so.

Studio: CD Projekt Red
Genre: Awesome
Release Date: Please be 2019
Platform: Xbox One, PS4, PC
Link: Cyberpunk 2077
Link to R Talsorian Games (creators of the pen and paper game): R Talsorian Games

Well, that’s what I’m most looking forward to this year… I mean what I think will be the hottest games of the year.  What’s your top 5?

Note: all of the images displayed here belong to the developers and studios of the aforementioned games.

 

 

Designer Diary #1 Sink or Swim

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This photo should tell you three things, my office is a mess, I’m one goofy looking dude, and I’m in desperate need of a haircut.

Introduction:
I’ve had my degree in Game Design for some time now and haven’t done much with it, so I figured it’s time I got to work on actually you know designing something. I decided long ago though that I didn’t necessarily want to work for another company when it came to designing games.  I got this degree to get my concepts to the metaphorical table. So to that end every other Tuesday I’ll be blogging my journey in the form of this here Designer Diary. Why is the first one called “Sink or Swim” well because there’s a strong chance I may fail in my first project.  However, whether or not I succeed in making something shiny and cool or not, it is my hope this one man journey can help others avoid some of the mistakes I’m sure to make. Let’s get started!

Analog or Digital:
The first thing I had to decide on was did I want to make a digital game or an analog game?  While I play tabletop way more than I play the plethora of PC games I own (this should be apparent if you read my other posts), I decided ultimately that I would make a digital game.  There are two big reasons why I chose a digital game.  The first is that I love tabletop games, board games, roleplaying games, miniatures, you name it.  Since I get a lot of enjoyment out of them I try not to over analyze board games with a designers lens.  For me personally, that sucks some of the enjoyment out of them. That’s not to say I wouldn’t make one in the future.  The second reason is because of cost. Believe it or not but getting a tabletop game up and running, even for one you plan to crowdfund can cost a lot more than a video game. My total cost for this digital product, not including marketing should I choose to do that down the road, would be roughly two hundred dollars.  One hundred for the Game Maker Studio 2 license which I already have, and another hundred to publish the game on Steam should I make it that far. That’s not bad at all, and ultimately that second reason is why I chose digital over analog. So now that we know it’s going to be digital what kind of game am I going make?

Concept:
You can’t make a game without a concept that’s true enough.  However, a concept is not the same as an “idea”.  Saying I’ve got this really great “idea” for a game is pretty useless honestly and you won’t get too far in my opinion.  A concept instead is something more concrete, while there are lots of ways to create a concept I prefer the problem statement method.  That’s essentially where you start with a problem and brainstorm solutions to it. My problem statement was “How can a make a game that truly captures the feel of Germanic mythology and lore during the early middle ages?”. As I’ve honestly not come across one I really liked. Games on Germanic and Norse mythology tend to have a very Hollywood feel to them.  Whereas I want Beowulf and the Sagas!  Now that I have my problem statement I’ll need to work on my GDD or Game Design Document. So let’s talk about that a bit.

The GDD:
A good GDD is a lot like the Consitution of the United States, it’s the law of the land but it’s also a living document that can change over time.  Only a GDD is a lot easier to change as I don’t need the approval of several States. While my GDD will likely start off pretty simple over time as create the game systems, playtest the game, and realize that some of the concepts I developed on paper are awful on screen it will change and become more robust. I won’t get too far into the GDD making process for this post as I’m saving that one for the next Designer Diary post. Just know that the GDD is a very important document that should help guide you on your game making journey but should not be stuck to in a rigid unyielding fashion. While most of the considerations I need to make will be contained in the GDD there is one last one I had to decide on before starting and this is do I want to work in a team or solo.

Team vs One Man Show:
Working in a team is ideal, let’s not kid ourselves the pros heavily outweigh the cons. You can get internal feedback by bouncing things off your colleagues. It’s not always an option though. There are roughly two ways I could build a team hire outside help or work with friends.  Hiring outside help is not going to work for me because I believe people should be paid for their work. I simply can’t afford to pay a small team while I work on this little project, not at this time anyway. So the other team option is to work with friends. Now, I do have some friends who are good at art, coding, and other skills that are needed for making a game in my opinion working with friends is never a good idea. While I could likely guilt my friends into working for free until the game turned a profit, if it turned a profit (a really big if), it’ll likely create resentment.  I don’t want my friends to become burnt out because I expect them to put in work on my personal project simply for being my friend.  I’d be a real shitty friend if I did and it could jeopardize our friendship. So by default, I’m gonna be a one-man show. That means I’m going to have to learn new skills (hey sounds like some good blog fodder) and put in a lot of work.  So I hope you’ll follow me on this journey if anything just to laugh at the mistakes I make. Who knows though, maybe I’ll hit my goal of making a prototype before the year is over. Peace out and game on (yes that is some corny 90s sounding line, but I don’t care)!

 

My Hobby is Not Your Hobby

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Clearly, my hobby is not taking good photographs

 

Introduction:
Gamers are often passionate people and passionate people often want to share their passion. The trouble is we often share it in a way that seems elitist.  Telling people what they should play or how they should perform a certain aspect of the gaming hobby. How come you don’t like Euros?  Why do you choose to paint your models like that? You have fun playing Monopoly? You don’t play online what a noob! Those mechanics are antiquated here let me show this game that does it better.  This issue plagues every aspect of the gaming hobby both analog and digital.  Heck, even my son thought I was a lame old man for not liking Fortnite! The problem with this of course is it keeps the aspects we enjoy to ourselves because nobody is open to an asshat even if that asshat is trying to share their passion. It also ignores some pretty important things such as…

Why we play:
We are all different people and we all play games for different reasons. The ultimate shared reason is of course to have fun, but how do you have fun?  Someone might enjoy the thrill of competition or the excitement of exploration.  Many people love tabletop games and many more love digital games.  There are even those who love both and that’s fine.  It doesn’t matter if you enjoy socializing with your friends over a game of Fornite or if you prefer face to face socialization during a game of Dungeons and Dragons.  As long as you are having fun that’s what matters, but it is still important to remember that we all have fun on an individual level. For example, I don’t like worker placement mechanics, I’ve had quite a few people gasp at this revelation.  However, I understand why other people might love games centered around work placement.  Where I am bored to tears with most worker placement games others find it thrilling and maybe even nerve-wracking. I prefer tabletop games that have direct conflict, I am a huge fine of GMT’s line of games for that reason (they produce mainly historical wargames). Lot’s of tabletop gamers don’t like direct conflict and that is ok too. However, fun is not the best word to describe this experience and I’ll get into why that is.

Understanding fun through the A in MDA:
The MDA framework is a way of describing games, it is my favorite way to be exact. You might have heard me mention it before. I won’t bore you with the details but know that the A in MDA stands for game aesthetics, not aesthetics as in the way something looks but aesthetics as in emotional output (confusing I know). Many designers, design their games to try and achieve a specific emotional output for the player. That is they are designing towards a specific target audience. For example, as mentioned above I am not the target audience for worker placement games. So why is the term game aesthetics or even emotional output a better way of putting it than fun? Well, fun is a very nebulous word and it doesn’t tell us much about the individual experience. Here is a great article by Christian Nutt over at Gamasutra that breaks this down really well, GDC: Game Design Workshop: Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics. Whereas, if we understand that gaming and having fun is an emotional experience we can better emphasize with other people having different opinions. Also, emotions are very personal and when others attack our emotions the normal reaction is to be angry.  To give an example I have been told that the way I paint miniatures (I prime them, base coat them, dip them, do the bases and I’m done) isn’t the right way. I’m not a huge hobbyist though, and all I care is about tabletop quality. Are you seriously gonna tell me the miniatures in the post pic are poorly painted? No? So don’t tell me I’m wrong! I know though that the critique also comes from a place of emotion as well. So now that we understand that games can involve personal emotions how do we go about sharing our passion in a way that doesn’t have us come off like elitist clowns?

Too many you shoulds:
You should is perhaps one of the worst phrases in the English language.  Those who know me know that I’m pretty big into fitness (yes this is relevant just keep reading), another industry plagued with this phrase.  Well, I’ve been reading a book recently called Motivational Interviewing for Nutrition and Fitness. In it, it talks about how the words “you should” rob the person you are talking to of their autonomy.  Think about it, do you want to be told what you shouldn’t and should do in life?  Especially something as personal as emotional enjoyment? I gather not, that’s why if our real goal is to share our passion and get people to try something past Monopoly or Walking Simulators for you digital folks (not that there is anything wrong with having fun with either of those types of games) how we say it is important. First off it’s important to acknowledge what the person likes, “oh I see you really like Monopoly”, then you want to ask for permission to share a game/advice with them.  It’s important to ask because just as you don’t want someone sharing unsolicited advice with you, they don’t want you to do that either. So say something like “I’ve got a game I think you might like, would you like to know what it is?”, notice I didn’t tell them they would like it, I granted them their autonomy, they can bloody well decide if they like it themselves. If they say no just walk away, don’t be a dick like those gas hoarders were to Humongous in the Road Warrior, if they say yes explain to them the game in human terms and not robot terms.  Something along the lines of “The game is called Catan, instead of trying to collect properties to build houses, you are trying to collect suites of resources to build roads and settlements, you want to give it a try?”, notice I referenced the game they do like and asked rather than assuming they wanted to give it a try. That’s all it takes really, just talk like less of a clownasuar.

Conclusion:
Hopefully, we’ve learned a valuable lesson here, the main lesson being that you should respect what other people like.  You should respect it even if you hate it, I hate worker placement games. I still know there are lots of well-designed worker placement games out there and the people who like them have every right to like them. If you take nothing else away take that away from this post (shit I’m robbing you of your autonomy). Seriously though if we genuinely want to share our passion with people then perhaps examining how we share that passion isn’t so bad. At the end of the day do you want to be an elitist clown or a passionate gamer whose passion helps grow our hobby? Peace out and game on fellow nerds!

The One Skill Every Designer Needs!

Introduction:
It has been awhile since my last blog I know I know, but I’m coming back with a great one. I want to talk a little about myself and what I believe is a skill you need! I’ll also answer why I used that click-bait title. You see my background isn’t in design, it’s in warfighting, and in sales.  No really I used to be a Marine Infantryman and during that time I did a stint as a Recruiter.  I can honestly say becoming a Recruiter while miserable at times was one of the best decisions of my life. Because while as a Recruiter I learned about professional selling skills. Those skills are how I got a job in the gaming industry in fact, it wasn’t in design, but it was a foot in the door and it did let me learn more about the inner workings of a larger tabletop company. I’ve since moved on but that is a tale for another time.  More importantly, salesmanship is a skill not only every designer needs to hone, but everyone should hone.

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The Marine on the right is me, I’m selling to my friend the idea that what we are doing sucks.  It wasn’t a hard sell.

To Sell Is…
Author Daniel Pink wrote a book titled to Sell is Human, and in that book, he details why he thinks that selling is something natural we do only a daily basis. I happened to agree even before I read the book.  You see many people may think that sales are all about lying, cheating, and tricking your way into a customers heart.  After all the stereotypical car salesman persona exists for a reason.  However, the reality is so far from the truth.  In fact, you dear reader probably used salesmanship today and didn’t even realize it.  We all sell all the time, going for a job interview?  You are selling yourself and telling the employer why he/she should invest in you.  Asking that girl or boy you like out on a date? You are selling them on the idea that you would work well together. Trying to convince your coworkers to adopt a new and innovative solution? Yep, that’s sales!  Even getting your friend to try that new board game you love is sales. You see sales isn’t just about a professional salesman trying to get a customer to buy a product. Selling is everyday human interaction, it’s getting a return on life.

Why Designers Need Salesmanship:                                                                                           As a game designer, you may think well I just want to make games and not have to worry about anything else.  I don’t need sales! Well, how are you going to pitch your game to an investor?  How are you going to convince the crowd to Kickstart you? Here’s a secret, good ideas and products don’t sell themselves, that’s a myth.  Good ideas and products disappear into the background all the time never to be seen again. Only people who are already highly successful at designing games can be “idea” guys.  You and I aren’t Reiner Knizia though. No one is going to back our ideas on our name alone, nobody knows or cares who Kevin Hamrick is.  That’s a reality that I’m ok with though because I can sell myself and I can sell a product. If your goal is to create your own games you need to know how to sell your product too.

Ah but Kevin you say, I just want to work for a big company like Blizzard or Fantasy Flight Games for you analog guys.  Well, that’s fine too, and it’s an equally as ambitious and respectful goal as the independent route. Some people love to be apart of something bigger.  However, do you imagine you are the only one who wants to do that?  There are probably hundreds if not thousands of people who aspire to that same goal. What do you think is going to make you stand out, your grades, where you got your degree from, your boring resume that no one cares about? There are another few hundred applicants that have the same grades, the same degrees, from the same schools, with the same resume, and they too think it’s all they need.  You know what is going to catch that employer’s eye the most though?  Your cover letter, your cover letter is your ad copy.  It’s where you sell yourself, it’s what I got hired on. Then come the interviews which you are again selling yourself in.

Beyond this, once you have started a company or gotten a job at a bigger studio there will be times you need to move your team, or convince someone of your vision.  Your job and your life will be happier if you can get these people to see what you see, to see why your ideas are great. Otherwise, you are just clocking in and out like a drone. To sell is human, and to do it well creates satisfaction.

Conclusion:                                                                                                                            Hopefully you now see that selling is essential to any goal you choose to have in life. But what was with that click-bait title?  I did promise to answer that, didn’t I? Well if you didn’t know click bait titles actually work, go ahead and google most clicked on titles and see for yourself. While you are at it, always practice your salesmanship, because practising that is practising human interaction!

Of course, if you are interested in diving right in I do recommend the aforementioned book To Sell is Human.  It’s a great diving board to further your sales knowledge, I’ve provided a link below to make it easy to find.

To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others

Theme Vs. Mechanics

“This titanic struggle becomes more apparent in the world of tabletop gaming.”

It’s time for another blog post! This time I’m talking about theme vs mechanics. There seems to be a great divide in the world of gaming on which matters more. Some say that theme is what gets them into the game and others say that mechanics matter most.  I mean just look at that epic battle in the featured photo (totally ignore that mess behind me)!

This titanic struggle becomes more apparent in the world of tabletop gaming. Where gamers have developed two terms of endearment.

Ameritrash:  This is what those in the mechanics camp call games with all theme.  These games tend to be highly thematic but usually have mechanics that rely heavily on luck rather than player skill.

Euros:  This is what those in the mechanics camp call the games they like.  Wait a minute why is the mechanics camp getting to name both…  anyway these tend to have very tight mechanics that rely on heavily player skill.  However, many have ‘themes’ that are nothing more than a skin that can be exchanged for another easily.

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Look how sweet that looks!

The game I think of most when I hear Ameritrash is Fireball Island. This is the type of game that is all theme no ‘substance’.  I’ve played this game a grand total of two times.  Then my friend sold it because it was worth a ton of money, boo.  While that made me sad I have super great memories about it.  Fireball Island makes my head explode with excitement! Those kinds of memories are what games are all about.

 

So here then is my question, if the point of playing games is to create a memorable and joyful experience, how can call Fireball Island trash? I don’t think we can, which is why the term Ameritrash has always bothered me on some level.  After all I certainly don’t think my way of having fun is trash.

Dominion
I’d totally allow it

Contrast this with Dominion, this game has very tight mechanics and luck has little do with whether or not you are going to win.  However, the theme is inconsequential it could be anything and the game wouldn’t feel any different really. Just take a look at the made up card to the left.  While it’s text might be humorous you could re-skin all of Dominion to be Old Spice commercials and the game would still be played most likely, by those who enjoy.   Whenever I play Dominion though, I feel like I’m playing multiplayer solitaire though.  My experiences have been memorable for the wrong reasons.

 

Now don’t get me wrong my way of having fun isn’t the only way.  Some people love games like Dominion.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  So I wouldn’t call it trash either, just because I don’t like it.  What if this battle didn’t have to be a battle though?  What if there was a better way?

ThemeandMechanics
Obligatory Morpheus Meme

That’s right it doesn’t have to be either/or.  In fact in my humble opinion the best games are those that marry theme with mechanics.  If the mechanics feel like they belong to the theme it really reaffirms and increases immersion.  If those mechanics are very tight then all the better. On the inverse if the theme feels appropriate to the mechanics then it gives them a greater sense of purpose.  It can take something as dry as “roll x” and make it feel like you are firing your turbolasers to knock out that enemy fighter.  Speaking of lasers and fighters.

Picture 5
Pew pew pew

X-Wing by Fantasy Flight Games exemplifies this approach. Not only does it feel like you are having Star Wars dogfights, but the mechanics are very solid.  It is in fact one of the few games that I think plays just as well casually as it does competitively.  No easy feat in my opinion. It’s an excellent marriage of theme and mechanics.

 

So at the end of the day what you should take away from this is that it doesn’t always have to be about theme vs mechanics.  You can have both, and when the two come together well it’s a beautiful thing. Remember though there are no bad games, only the right game for the right person.  So even if you love mechanics or you love theme you are still doing it right.  No need fight!

Take care and enjoy your games,

Kevin M. Hamrick

 

 

 

 

 

Rules As Written Vs Rules As Intended?

when we say “I believe this is how the rules were intended” what we are really saying is “I believe this dynamic is what the designer intended/didn’t intend to exist”.

Hi, and welcome to my blog.  This is my first blog post, ever, and what an issue to tackle. If you didn’t know by the title what I’m talking about, then what I’m talking about is whether or not tabletop games should be played rules as written (RAW) vs rules as intended (RAI).  Before I get started though I’ll just go ahead and say that rules as written is what I do myself.  So that will be the reference point for my post here.

 

games-workshop-guy-thats-rules-as-intended-not-rules-as-written
Games Workshop Guy knows!

 

I think that it would be more helpful to define some words I like to use before I go much further so here we go.

  • Mechanics:  If you are new to tabletop gaming, this simply means the rules of the game.  For example if rule X states that you roll a single six sided die to see how far you move that’s a mechanic.
  • Dynamics: This means the behaviors that players may exhibit because of the rules but aren’t explicitly stated by the rules.  For example in the second edition of the miniatures game Warhmachine  players could not measure an action before taking it, such as moving.  However, each Warcaster (a certain type of miniature you could take) was able to measure it’s control area (which extended from the miniature) at any time.  So players would use that rule to gauge the distances they normally couldn’t pre-measure for.
  • Game Aesthetics:  This one may sound sort of counter intuitive, but it has nothing to do with looks, instead it is defined as the emotional output that players have when they play a game. Something a little deeper than “it was fun” of course.  For example many players feel that the turtling dynamic of risk is unfair and imbalanced.

So what does this have to do with RAW vs RAI you might ask?  Well everything, because when we say “I believe this is how the rules were intended” what we are really saying is “I believe this dynamic is what the designer intended/didn’t intend to exist”.

Game aesthic
Now that’s the kind of game aesthetic that designers want to produce!

In my opinion though, that’s nearly impossible to discern.  We’d have to know how much play testing went on.  We’d have to assume that the specific dynamic didn’t show up in those play tests or that if it did the designers didn’t notice it or were too lazy to fix it. That all seems unlikely to me, especially since I’m a design student and an aspiring designer.  Designers don’t strike me as the lazy type or as the type to lack attention to detail, very much the opposite. I might be bias though so here’s something else to think about.

When a designer makes a game they experience it like so

Mechanics —-> Dynamics —-> Game Aesthetics

When a player experiences that same game they experience it like this

Game Aesthetics —-> Dynamics —-> Mechanics

So in essence a player may have already formed an opinion long before he really understands the mechanics behind it.  For instance a common complaint you may hear is “well the rules may allow it but it violates the spirit of the rules and is unfair”, what they are really saying is “that dynamic causes me to feel a game aesthetic of unfairness and I don’t think the designer wanted me to feel that”.  To be honest I don’t think they did either, but a designer designs not for anyone person but for a certain milieu (a fancy way of saying social environment).  Not only that but as I said the designer experiences the mechanics first, because before he can play test it those have got to be on paper.  During the play testing process he or she will be watching for dynamics and how those dynamics make players feel.  Ultimately every designer (at least the good ones) wants to make things people enjoy and love to play.

Hard working game designers.jpg
Could you imagine putting in this much work just to be like “Muahahahaha I hope they hate this one”

It’s for these reasons that I almost always play strictly rules as written.  To me it’s just too hard to know what the designer was thinking, what they play tested, how many iterations it went through, etc etc.  As a friend of mine said, the only thing we know for certain is what they put on paper which is the rules.

Before I go though I do want to add one more thing, games at the end of the day are about having fun.  If you and your friend get together and decide playing a game differently than what the rules as written specifically say is more fun for you, there is nothing wrong with that.  As an aspiring designer I would just be glad that you are having a blast with my creation and hey I’d probably take notes of your house rules and perhaps incorporate that in a future design or edition.

Thanks for reading and I hope you all enjoyed this blog post. If you are interested in reading more about some of the concepts I talked about in this post I highly recommend reading Players Making Decisions: Game Design Essentials and the Art of Understanding Your Players by Zack Hiwiller.

Take care,

Kevin M. Hamrick