Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post by game design consultant, Andy Trowers.
As a youngster, I was a regular player of games of imagination and wonder. Starting with first edition Dungeons and Dragons, my brother and I spent days and weeks lost in fantasy worlds. But as I got older, real life got in the way. Work, relationships and time spent on quality computer games have all impacted on my fantasy life. Sadly, there is less room for the joys of pure imagination.
If I hadn’t played role-playing games as a boy, though, my life would be very different. I spent twenty years working as a professional computer game designer and without the fundamental understanding of game mechanics I gained from fully-exposed RPG rulesets I wouldn’t have had the specialist knowledge needed to break into such a competitive industry.
Here are my three favourite RPG’s and some of the lessons I learned from them.
Dungeons and Dragons
First released in 1974, the great granddaddy of RPGs blazed a trail that many sought to follow. Derived from table-top war games, Dungeons and Dragons is widely recognized as the first table-top RPG and needs no further description here.
For a young man with a vivid imagination, D&D taught me many things. Mostly it allowed me to harness and refine my creativity to form stories and characters with meaning for other people. It was a fantastic way to explore narrative theories, like the heroes journey and apply them to interactive storytelling where the audience actually have an impact on how the narrative plays out. Non-linear storytelling is an important part of game design and has many pitfalls that traditional story forms avoid by virtue of straight-line narrative. I learned about bottlenecking key narrative components so that big plot points are sure to be triggered while giving enough secondary points to provide the illusion of total choice. It’s a fine line between creating an overly-open world where the story gets lost in divergence from expected paths and making a game on rails where players feel that events overtake their sense of free will.
I also learned swiftly that random game mechanics can be a Royal Pain if not used sparingly. Though a fantastic ruleset, D&D does have its flaws. One is the dice-based nature of its combat and skills system. People grow highly attached to characters as they progress and don’t like to see them die. Generally speaking, they are fair-minded about it though. If they put themselves in a stupid situation – “my cleric jumps into lava to test the new flame-proof armour he bought from the travelling goblin tinker” – then they usually accept the bad consequences of their actions. If they lose a character due to the vagaries of dice-rolling then they are far more aggrieved and cease to enjoy the experience. The same applies to computer games. Even more so in fact. If there are random elements to game, users are much more likely to assume that the random parts are rigged by the computer. I once made a Risk computer game and lots of players were convinced the computer fixed the dice in order to beat them, despite the fact it was totally random.
The second game that captured my imagination was the space epic, Traveller. Chock-full of exploration, trading and space battles, it is gaming on a grand scale. It is notable for its inventive character generation process – a mini-game in itself that determines the make-up of your character. You can even die during the procedure, which adds a nice element of danger.
Games can be slower paced than D&D and I learned a lot about game dynamics – creating games where the tension ebbs and flows and the action sequences are separated by more reflective parts. The dynamics of a game are very important. With non-stop action, players can get desensitized and the resultant hack-fest becomes supremely uninteresting. This lesson is key to designing campaigns for computer games. Level design can make or break a title, whether first-person shooters, RPGs or even strategy games. You need variety of content and pacing to keep it exciting from start to finish and give your big set pieces room to have the impact they deserve. You can have the best game mechanics but if your campaign arc is not satisfying then you waste those firm foundations.
Another sci-fi game, Paranoia is set in a dystopian future where an all-powerful computer rules a city called Alpha Complex. It is an unusual game, being both political and humorous, and draws influence from novels and movies such as Nineteen Eighty Four, Brave New World and Logan’s Run. Paranoia’s dark humour riffs on themes of totalitarianism and over-bearing bureaucracy yet manages to keep the game light, despite its troubling subject matter.
It further pushes the boundaries of RPG rules by mixing competitive and co-operative play. Though there is a mission for your team to complete, each player has a secret agenda driven by membership of secret societies or internal security groups. Some players may even want the mission to fail entirely. In earlier revisions of the rules, the balance was weighted firmly in favour of competitive play and as such, games usually ended up with all players being wiped out in a frenzy of treason accusations and back-shooting. As someone who loves both competitive and co-operative games, it was a revelation to see them together and a great lesson to take into games.
One of my favourite computer games utilizes this cross-breeding to great effect. In Zelda: Four Swords you need each other to progress through levels but are also competing to collect gems and equipment as you play. Oftentimes a timely push would see one of your teammate/rivals put into harm’s way, leaving you to collect their valuable belongings. The balance was perfect for me – a co-operative game with enough competition to cause occasional mayhem.
Andy Trowers is a game design consultant, freelance ne’er do well and staff writer for www.australia.for-sale.com
© 2016, Patrick Cossel. All rights reserved.