Designer’s Diary: Hyperspace Smuggler

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I. Merchants & Marauders

After listening to some podcasts with designers where they mentioned setting down every step of their design process, I realized I’d been remiss in recording almost anything about the evolution of Hyperspace Smuggler.

The seed for this game was planted when I played Merchants and Marauders at a friend’s house in Chicago. I’ve sailed on tall ships, so I love anything pirate- or seafaring-themed. We sat down and jumped into the immersive, incredible world of this game.

After it was over, I found myself thinking “I wonder if there’s a way to do that without so many rules.” M&M’s “player guide” is a two-sided 8.5×11” sheet of paper. Early on, I wanted the game to have a sense of joy, tension, and wonder that come from exploring, so rather than use a board, I took a cue from another game, Betrayal at House on the Hill, and decided that this new pirate game would have the players laying tiles as they explored the seas.

The pirate game went through a few iterations and playtests, but it always suffered from the same problem: Exploring was too much fun. Player ships went off in two or three or four different directions, ending up at the end of long chains of tiles, each plying their own solitary waves. “You need a way to jump across the board,” said a friend of mine who was playing one of those early versions, “like Hyperspace in Star Wars.”

Loath as I was to abandon my favorite theme, that one sentence was the answer I needed.

II. Re-Theme

My tiles were spay-painted ocean-blue and my player figures were wooden ships, but I started testing the game as a space game. The new mechanic was this: Use a Hyperspace card. Roll a 6-sided die. Whichever face the die lands on, go to a symbol with a matching face (1s and 6s had no corresponding symbols on the tiles, and signaled a Hyperdrive failure). Those die-face icons survive even into my current prototype copies of the game, though in the final I’ll be replacing them with four shape icons (triangle, square, pentagon, hexagon). The ability to deconstruct the game’s topology was, at first, just an elegant solution to a problem, but soon, after lots of playtests and feedback, I realized that this feature was something unique.

Not entirely unique, of course (is anything in the boar gaming space entirely unique any more?); plenty of games utilize alternate topologies to allow for players to create surprising connections or movements — think of the caverns in Small World, or the secret stairs and passageways in Betrayal at House on the Hill. However, I have yet to come upon a game that roots itself in a map, and then creates a core movement mechanic designed to subvert that map.

It was at this point that I realized that I maybe had something worth honing down and trying to publish.

III. Mitigate the Chaos

In keeping with my design directive, I wanted to maintain a sense vastness, exploration, and suspense, especially in the laying of the tiles. Unfortunately, when you can discover anything in the vastness of space, the odds inevitably lead to one playing discovering lots of great things and another discovering lots of terrible things. This wasn’t the only random feature in the game (remember that six-sided die?), and the intersection of a bunch of randomized systems led to a game that was definitely suspenseful, often fun, but very hard to control with any measure of strategy.

I had to tune some of the randomness out. First I made the Hyperspace die optional (you could circumvent it by playing 2 cards instead of 1). Then I allowed players to look at the top two tiles and play one, leaving the other in place for their opponents.

IV. Stability

I wrote about this idea earlier, but it bears repeating: Games need some form of stability. In games with a board, the board provides that anchor. The board will never change, or if it does, it will be a big deal (i.e Pandemic:Legacy, which is kind of an edge case anyway). Or, consider a deck of cards: The semantics of the deck are stable. A heart is always a heart, and related to hearts in one way and to clubs, spades, and diamonds in another way.

When I set out, I had no idea how important it would be to create stability on the table. Betrayal at House on the Hill, my benchmark for tile-laying games (it’s not perfect, but I have never had a bad time playing it), manages this by making the character-ability system stable (you always want to increase, not decrease your abilities, and they only move up or down), and by linking the things that happen on the randomly-generated tile-space directly to the event, object, and omen cards (all of which are very text-heavy, and thus reinforce the game’s other point of stability) and to its theme.

Hyperspace Smuggler’s stability comes from theme (though not nearly as much as in Betrayal), but most importantly, from its card system. Players can draw Hyperspace, Engine, and Laser cards. These cards let them take actions with their ships. Regardless of the tile layout, if you have a hand full of Engines and Hyperdrive but no Lasers, you know for a fact that you are going to be able to zip through space very effectively, and you will be able to withstand attacks not at all. This basic hand-management aspect anchors the game, and makes it easy for players, even those new to gaming, to grasp (playing from a hand of cards is a familiar paradigm to most anyone).

V. Shifting Design Directive

As I tested this game further and further, I realized that it was losing its big-world sense of wonder. I didn’t feel, as I did when I sat down to play Merchants & Marauders, that I could do anything in this broad galaxy. I felt possibilities, I felt tension and wonder, but that feeling of “I can do whatever I want!” was gone. I think that’s okay. The finished (or almost-finished) game is much tighter and leaner than earlier drafts. The portion of my self-assigned design directive regarding simple rules, however, was a huge success. The current rules document is 3 pages, and half of one page is  just re-stating rules that are printed on easy reference cards. This shift led to a re-focusing of the audience: I had always wanted to make a game that was accessible to new players of board games, but now the new player (and the experienced player hoping to rope in new players) became my focus. In short, what began as a medium-weight exploration game became a gateway game.

VII. Wrap Up

Recognizing that the game’s target audience had shifted was difficult to realize, but once I realized it, it made a lot of decisions easy. The most recent part of my design process has been trimming the game: cutting out mechanics that I like, but that would make it harder for new players to grasp. I’ll miss these ideas, but I’m excited to be publishing the game via Kickstarter, because I can bring them back as stretch goals if I get that far. So, in short,

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A Short Defense of Negative Feedback Loops

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I. Update

I’m still working on that tabletop game I keep talking about. Soon I’ll have a web link for you, and then (hopefully!) a Kickstarter project page.

Until then, I’m dumping some design journal thoughts here.

II. Negative Feedback Loops

I love negative feedback loops. I want every player to feel the other players nipping at their heels. It makes the game more exciting for me and hopefully for the other players.

The trade-off is that negative feedback loops seem to punish thoughtful players. A game without many negative feedback loops (ala a classic Euro worker placement game) lets players plan well, place their pieces, and reap rewards that increase over time. A player who made bad choices early on has no chance of winning.

I say “seem to” because I argue that a negative feedback loop should be considered in a thoughtful player’s strategy.

III. Consider the Loop

Just as the thoughtful player in our hypothetical Euro game has taken into account resource management, board layout, worker placement, etc. s/he SHOULD be taking into account negative feedback loops that may come into play throughout the game.

If the player does not take these things into account, I have no sympathy for them. I’m not suggesting they have no right to dislike the game, but I do think that negative feedback loops are no less a strategic element than others in a game, and thoughtful players should take them into account.

Violence in games

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I’m still working away on this tabletop game. Its theme is morphing, and its mechanics are streamlining, but one thing that keeps bugging me is that the game has a violent component.

As someone coming out of a pacifist tradition, I find this hard to reconcile. I want to tell a good story, one with conflict and emotional intensity; that’s one thing that games, particularly games involving violence, are good at. But I also don’t want to be complicit in the cultural myth that violence is the only path to excitement, conflict, conflict resolution, etc.

In the game itself, this is still an open question. I haven’t been able to work the violent aspect out of it entirely, and I’m not sure that I want to. I’m working on mechanics and situations that allow for a violent resolution, but ensure that the violent resolution is, more often than not, the most costly and least strategically useful option. For now I’m OK with that.

As I grappled with this, I stumbled across this piece on Board Game Geek: https://boardgamegeek.com/blogpost/36087/morality-war-games

While the writer here is arguing about a slightly different issue, it was encouraging to see someone else in the game-making and -playing community take such an honest look at these things that so many gamers are willing to gloss over.

Stability As a Design Element in Tabletop Games

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I’ve been designing a pirate-themed board game. I have mixed feelings about it (do we really need another pirate-themed board game? Do we really need another semi-simulationist game with a combat mechanic?), but it’s in my craw, so I’m going to work it out by making the game.

The basics are this: The board is not a board, but a bunch of tiles, played face-down as players’ ships move off the edges of the board (ala Betrayal At The House on the Hill). Players can then turn tiles over to search for islands, treasures, other ships, sea encounters, etc.

Making this game has made me realize why so many tabletop games have boards: Boards create stability. In-game text in this game cannot reference set points on the board, because the landmarks (or in the case, sea-marks, I guess) appear in a different place and at a different time each game.

Thus, the stability of the game needs to come from other sources — in this case, primarily numerical distances from the central island, which is visible and placed at the start of the game.

I tend to like tile-placement games; games with less stability than a more “standard” board game. I like the replayabilty and the surprise element that comes from starting with almost nothing on the table at the game’s beginning. The question I ran into while making the pirate game was “How to provide enough stability for the game to run itself without a board?” One easy answer is to assign one player to be the “Dungeon Master,” as in Dungeons & Dragons. This, however, removes a player from play, and requires one player to commit more time and energy to the game. This also breaks some of my unduly idealist notions about games as a self-contained set of rules and items.

I’ll list a few methods of providing game stability below, but mostly as a record for myself, as I may expand on this post later.

Board Games: The board provides stability. No matter what happens as the game plays out, the board is not affected (or affected in small ways) by players’ actions.

Tabletop RPGs (ala D&D): The Dungeon Master or similar entity provides stability by narrating, moderating, and maintaining the situations that occur on the table. This solution, however, eliminates a player, as discussed above.

Betrayal At The House on the Hill: Stability comes from the Event cards, which are fairly text heavy, and allow players to have adventures in the haunted house regardless of how that house is laid out. Most tiles have an Event occurrence, and while the nature of the event is unpredictable, the frequency of events is fairly common.

Carcassone: One of the more elegant instances of non-board stability (at least in the main game — the expansions get a little messier). The stability is supplied by the matching rules: tiles must be laid with like features touching like features, creating a predictable pattern for how the “board” develops as the game plays on.

Ingress: Hate The Player, Not The Game

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The writers of “Pervasive Games: Theory and Design: Experiences on the Boundary Between Life and Play” write in their introduction that “playfulness is seeping into the ordinary. Everyday life is becoming interlaced with games.”

This post isn’t going to sum up what a pervasive game is and is not, though it will seek to expand that term, so some familiarity with the notion of pervasive games is assumed. Check out the book’s site to learn more about pervasive games.

I. What Is Ingress?

Ingress is a smartphone game from Google’s Niantic Labs. Players download the app, which uses location information to place the player onto a map of the area. Players join one of two factions, competing to control “portals,” set by players at points of interest (ie, a mural, a statue, a famous building), and by linking those portals. The players can only act on portals within a 50m radius, so the game motivates exploration of the local area.

Ingress is a textbook pervasive game: It uses the extant world, represented by maps and interpreted by players’ selections of points of interest, as the backdrop for a game. While playing Ingress, you are both in the real world and in the game world.

This aggressive liminality is the status-quo for pervasive games — the examples cited in “Pervasive Games: Theory and Design” all explore “the boundary between life and play,” as the subtitle puts it.

But Ingress is also pervasive in another dimension: Time.

II. Time Pervasive & Endless

The notion of games that are what I call “Time Pervasive” is not new or even that exciting. Massive Multiplayer Online games (MMOs) like World of Warcraft, for example, do not stop when one player stops playing. The game-time runs on, whether the player is playing or not.

For a player of this sort of game, when to play is not merely motivated by desire and circumstances (as, for example, playing a board game is), but by the realization that absence from the game is an in-game decision. That is, choosing not to play the game will have in-game ramifications.

Additionally, games like WoW and Ingress do not end. Unlike a console video game, which has an arc and can be “beaten,” regardless of multiplayer modes that give the game legs beyond its primary arc, the story (if any) in a game like Ingress is endless. There is no victory condition. Both factions will continue battling over portals until… Google alters the format of the game? Smartphones are eclipsed by another technology? The apocalypse occurs?

WoW is ten years old, and spawning competitors and spinoffs every year, so the idea of a game being both time-pervasive and endless is not new, even if the use of the term “time-pervasive” is (and some brief googling suggests that it).

III. Space-Pervasive & Time-Pervasive

Ingress is interesting in that it is both space- and time-pervasive. It is certainly not the first game to combine these traits, but it is the first one that I have played, and it may be the most popular of the group.

As noted earlier, pervasive games (or, as I’ll call them going forward, to differentiate, space-pervasive games) blur the boundary between the physical, “real,” world and the game world by mapping meaning onto real-world places. For example, a mural in my neighborhood was not just a mural, but a portal, which I had to fight to control when I was in the Ingress game-world.

By adding a time-pervasive element, Ingress pins the game not only onto the map, but onto the clock. Game strategy in Ingress takes into account real-world schedules and actions (ie, during rush hour, I need to make sure my portal near the bus stop is well-guarded).

This synergy is useful to the game, and unusual, as far as I know. Most space-pervasive games tend to be on an “event” model: The players arrive, the game begins, the game ends.

Ingress is made more interesting by the fact that it is always on — new players are entering and leaving the space and time continua of the game. I went on vacation and found that my neighborhood had been overtaken by the enemy faction. My playing of the game had not changed from the perspective of my own input (while on vacation, I captured enemy portals, etc.), but because of the game’s pervasiveness in time and space, my physical presence at the appropriate time(s) made an impact in my gameplay.

IV. Endless & Space-Pervasive & Time-Pervasive: Ingress’s Undoing?

I really enjoyed playing Ingress, but ultimately, I stopped. The game’s endless quality made it begin to feel like work — and not quite the same kind of work as “grinding” (performing easy in-game tasks in order to level up).

Rather, the game, in part because of its space- and time-pervasive-ness, became a chore. On my way to the train, I checked all the portals in my neighborhood, restored links that had been destroyed, shored up shields where necessary. The conflict only occurred when I left my routine routes.

Perhaps this is the game’s intent: to motivate breaking of routines. This is often a goal in (space-)pervasive games, and it is an admirable one (see my post on Journey to the End of the Night). But for me, at least, the game’s time-pervasive nature undermined it. I knew that if I wasn’t maintaining my neighborhood, it would fall to the enemy. I also knew that I didn’t want to spend every waking moment playing Ingress, so when I broke my routine, I didn’t boot up the game. I only played when I was in my familiar areas. As such, the game became boring.

V. Ways of Playing 

Ultimately, I think my boredom with Ingress was my fault, not Ingress’s. The game is well-designed enough, motivating engagement with real-world objects and creating opportunities for conflict between the teams (notably, it is easier to destroy a portal than it is to control it).

The problems I had with Ingress were mostly with the ways I chose to play it — not deviant ways, ways designed to break its rule structure, but in a fairly mundane way. This undid one of the game’s central attractions: Exploration of new parts of the city. By playing in this fashion, I only undid my own play experience.

Ultimately, the experience of playing Ingress confirms my dislike for digital gaming (even when it cleverly interacts with the real world) and pushes me towards a more active engagement with analog gaming.

Stay tuned…

 

 

 

 

 

Skeuomorphism and Demographics in “Star Wars: Assault Team”

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I. A Digital Deck-Builder?

The impetus for this post game from the strange occurrence of my playing of a digital game. Unlike many game thinkers and writers, I have never been very attracted to playing video games. I will as a social thing of course, and I’ve tried one or two big-title games, but I don’t own a game console, and haven’t ever bothered to soup up my PC enough to run serious computer games. The last video game I played with any intensity at all was Roller Coaster Tycoon. I was 11.

But I was browsing the app store and noticed in the headline bar, a Star Wars title. I love Star Wars, so I tapped, and found the game described as a “deck builder.”

This intrigued me. Deck building is fundamentally a real-world, analog pursuit. You build a deck, and the bigger and better that deck is, the better you do in the game. Think of games like “Dominion,” or “Magic: The Gathering.”

I was intrigued enough to download the (free) game and play it for a while.

II. What is Skeuomorphism?

A brief term check: Skeuomorphism is a design term for the decorative repurposing of that which was once functional. For example, the Apple watch has hands and a face. It doesn’t need those things to function, but having them reminds us that Apple is entering their product into the line of things called “watches.” Car hub caps sometimes have spokes. They do not need spokes as wagons once did, but they remind us of wagons, and bring up the relevant cultural associations.

The connection here is obvious: “Star Wars: Assault Team,” with its digital cards and decks, is skeuomorphic.

III. Gameplay in “Star Wars: Assault Team”

The game unfolds in a few parts. The most “play” oriented part of “SW:AT” is the battles. The player’s characters (at first, just Han Solo) enter an animated world where they engage in turn-based combat with computer-generated enemies or other players. This part is minimally skeuomorphic. These characters appear in small card-like boxes at the base of the screen, while enemies appear as animated figures in the middle ground. Gameplay animations do not hearken to the idea of cards. Minimally skeuomorphic at best.

The notion of skeuomorphism gets interesting, however, in the “secondary” sphere of the game: Team management. Once you’ve played a few missions, you have earned credits (in-game money), characters, and training items. Between missions, the game encourages training and reorganizing your “assault team” to better take on new missions.

This part of the game is where the card feeling comes into the design and the text. Your mission team consists of four slots at the top of the screen, and you drag and drop boxed images (cards) of other characters into and out of your team. “Cards” in the “team area” appear as “cards” at the base of the screen during the battle phase of play.

Some of the training items even include text self-describing as cards! “Train a Rebel Medic to Level 5, then use this card to promote him to Tier 2,” says the text associated with one “card.”

This level of reference to the game as a card game astonished me. The design of the game works well enough without explicitly referencing the play of games like “Magic: The Gathering” (although the strategic  placement of the colon in “Star Wars: Assault Team” can’t be entirely coincidental). Why retain the skeuomorphic conceit?

IV. Nostalgia

My contention is that “SW:AT” is a game of nostalgia. Set in the Star Wars diegesis between the first (Ep. IV) and second (Ep. V) films to be released, it aims at an older audience than other games might. As such, it uses touchstones that those players might recognize. Those touchstones are non-digital: Card games.

The recent release of “Star Wars: Commander,” set in a similar diegetic timeframe, bears this out. “SW:C” is a mirror of smartphone phenomenon “Clash of Clans,” and contains no (in the brief time that I spent exploring it) mention of cards, decks, boards, or other analog gaming paraphernalia.

By setting both games in a diegesis more familiar to older fans, Star Wars (and Disney, who now owns it) signals its fidelity to the original trilogy as it moves to release its new trilogy. As one of these fans, this shift away from the silliness of the prequel trilogy makes me more excited about the upcoming movies.

As someone who thinks about games, I was glad to see game designers using such subtle formal cues to attract and hold my attention. I’m not even that old, but I am someone not very comfortable in digital gaming spheres. The skeuomorphic notion of the “deck builder” caught my interest long enough to make me a player of “SW:AT.” At least for a little while. I’m starting to get bored with game, and will move on to other non-digital games soon.