The Academy – Status update and other things

Part of an illustration by Daniele Poma for The Academy

Part of an illustration by Daniele Poma for The Academy


It feels like it was only yesterday that I last posted about my game project. Then I had just come in contact with Daniele Poma and ordered the interior art for what was then called The Cadet Game. Earlier this week I got an update from Daniele, all the art is done!

Now it is merely up to me to assemble it all into a game. But like our heroine on the left, I’m not quite ready yet. I’m still not done with revising the rules, and then there’s the whole matter of actually writing the game. And doing layout, proof reading, finding an editor and printing and dozens of other little things that are needed to make an idea – even one that has been subjected to playtests for several years – into a complete RPG to put on the shelves.

The Isabella card

The Isabella card

I have been distracted from my work with The Academy, I took part in Game Chef 2011, and competed with a game called The Daughters of Verona. We have played it and I must say it captures the feeling of a Shakespearean comedy very well, and it’s fun game too.

I have also been hacking While the World Ends into a game about courtiers in the palace of the Mad Sultan, and there are more hacks on the way. But I’m shifting my design focus back to The Academy for now, when I still have the buzz from the pretty pictures.

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Reading Mythic Russia – Heroism and adventure in the land of the firebird by Mark Galeotti

I saw Mythic Russia when it first came out, it looked like an exciting game but for some reason I never bought it. The years went by and I forgot all about that game about medieval Russia. But then, a few weeks ago, Lulu had a free-shipping-drive, and as I stocked up on While the World Ends books for GothCon, i stumbled across it again. This time I bought it, and since it came in the mail I have been reading it.

Mythic Russia cover

Mythic Russia cover

The book
Mythic Russia by Mark Galeotti is one of the thicker books I have reviewed here on the blog, 320 pages US-letter. I have gotten lazy, reading such large games feel like a chore these days, but there is something about the game that kept me picking the book up over and over again.

The cover is lovely. The interior looks like most games did fifteen years ago, lots of double column text, and illustrations or gray boxes every now and then to break up the text into more manageable chunks. Numerous artists have been involved, and their pictures have one thing in common, they are very pixelated. I don’t think that is a result of the Lulu printing as such, perhaps it is the transfer from the originals that shows. But if I hold the book at arm’s length the illustrations are nice, even though the sheer number of styles involved leaves a somewhat scattered impression.

The text is wordy, especially in the rules sections, I had to dig through a few columns of text to find the specific rule when I wanted too look up how to do this or that.

The setting
The setting in Mythic Russia is unsurprisingly a mythic Russia. An anachronistic Russia where the fairy tales bleed into the world. Most history and fantasy I have encountered in gaming is based on western European history, but this game looks to the east and presents a wide variety of possible settings/character backgrounds. To me it feels like an new kind of fantasy, familiar yet different. Besides various kinds of Russians the game provides background (and the necessary rules) for Mongols, Teutonic knights, Lithuanians among others.

Religion (and magic) is important, both in the setting and and in the game text.

The rules
The rules are based on the HeroQuest game engine by Robin D Laws, but it has been tweaked in a few places. As I’m not familiar with HQ, I can’t tell for sure what is new.

Character generation is very neat; write a short 100 word text about your character, then extract keywords from that text and use them as the character’s abilities. There are no lists of predefined skills, stats or abilities, everyone comes up with their own that best describe the character.

The task and conflict resolution use the same basic mechanic, even though there are some optional rules for those that want more detailed conflict resolution. A curious detail is that there is no strict task resolution as such, e.g. if you want to jump over a rock, you have to enter into a conflict with the rock.

All abilities have a value between 1 and 20. Roll one d20, a one is a critical success, less or equal than the ability is success, higher than the ability is a failure and a 20 is a critical failure. Both the PC and the opponent rolls the die, and the outcomes are compared in a table to see the result of the conflict.

If a skill should rise above 20, 20 is traded for one mastery bringing it back down to something between 1 and 20 again. Masteries can be used to bump the results of die rolls. E.g. if you have 4 + 1 mastery, and roll a 5. That would usually be a failure since it is above the ability, but the result is increased to the next step by the mastery which makes it a success.

The system also has a HeroPoints, which a player can use to bump the results of die rolls, add stuff to the narrative, or use to advance the character if any should remain after the adventure.

The form
The Form is traditional with a GM and a group of players playing their characters. An intro scenario with pre-gen characters is provided.

Conclusion
The setting is excellent, about 200 pages are dedicated to describing the rich mythic Russia setting. There are loads of adventure seeds and events in the text. A group could play for years without exhausting the material in the book.

The rules are good, once you penetrate the text. The power level and feel of the game could easily be adjusted by the phrasing of the abilities.

The form is weak, the reader is assumed to know how to play RPGs already, and if you do it is not a problem. There is a short section with GM’ing advice, and a very short section with advice on how to play with children.

Will I play it?
Maybe. The mechanics seem solid, and the setting is very nice. I might pick one of the sub settings and just focus on that, to not have to explain 200 pages of setting to the players before the game can start. I’d like to have the time and commitment for a campaign before starting though.

mythicrussia.wordpress.com/about – Details on the game on the official Mythic Russia blog.

The Haiti RPG bundle

Right now there is a bundle of RPG PDFs for sale on DriveThruRPG for the benefit of Doctors without borders and their work on Haiti after the quake disaster.

For $20 you get lots of neat stuff, including some Indie games like Summerland, Chronica Feudalis and Beast Hunters.

I got the bundle, I think you should too.

rpg.drivethrustuff.com … 78023 – More information about the bundle on the DriveThruRPG site.

forum.rpg.net … 14 – A post on RPG.net listing all the items in the bundle.

I2GD:7 – Expanded game experiences

Right. Four weeks have passed since my last blog on the course site. I will write one for this lecture as well. If you for some reason read this before actually watching the video cast I suggest that you fast forward 38 minutes into the show, and watch it to the end, before watching it from the start. Doing so will make everything make more sense.

0:00 – Introduction

0:40 – Expanded game experiences
Game experience in a wider sense, the context of the game experience, hetrogenic usergroups.

The model in the podcast is based on studies of causal games (but also relevant for hard core game experiences).

0:1:43 – Game experience
What in the game design makes us comfortable in the game, makes us enjoy the game, what makes the game fun, what makes the game good.

How can we design the experience that the game provides.

2:24 – Immersion, Flow, Usability and Playability

3:08 – Context
The context of the experience, highly subjective, time and place of playing.

4:11 – Transformation of digital play
Games are used for many different purposes. Different games are played in different situations (at work, with friends, mobile while waiting, workout in dance games).

5:45 – Causal games phenomenon
Rising phenomenon of simple games.
Accessability is part of the genre, play in the browser. Factors before/outside actual play affects the experience.

7:00 – Games as services
Distribution is not part of the actual game (XBLilve Store, PS Store), but part of the experience. Achievements, gamer tags, avatars, may or may not be part of actual game play.

8:14 – Example: Mobile games experiences
You must download the game to your phone, there are several different services for such games. It may be much work and/or difficult to get mobile games, such games are usually of a causal nature. (Here I expected the question “If mobile games are so hard to get, are they still causal?, that question never came. and the segment reached no real conclusion.)

9:55 – Is gameplay all we need to design?
… no, we should design the whole experience. (This sort of relates to my thoughts on Form. gameplay corresponds somewhat to Rules, but the rules are not the entire experience of play.)

10:52 – Designing experiences?
Not only designing one part of the experience.

11:09 – Design process
Is decentralized, different actors do different parts of the game. Usually not in communication with each others. Marketing, designers, service providers, different views on the game.

The game designer is not the only one that has to think about the experience of the game!

12:41 – The player?
The experience of reading reviews, discussing the game with peers, and actually purchasing it reflects on the gameplay experience later. (The influence of a game hype could be related to this. Those that anticipated Fable thought it sucked, but those that came into the game with no preconceptions on how it would be quite enjoyed it.)

13:37 – The holistic experience?
If I am looking for a causal game, do I want to install something to my computer? “Preplay” is part of play experiences.

Buying collectibles, game art, magazines, modding, expand the game experience.

15:17 – Decentralized design decentralized experiences?

Expanded game experience (EGE) model
Used for understanding game experience from this (above) context.

17:11 – Activities
Six different activity steps, when designing the game experience. (Pretty picture at 17:47.)

  • Information retrieval – Forums, reviews, advertising
  • * Do you choose to play? Decide not to play?
  • Enabling activities for the player – Buying hardware/console to play. (Patching windows-machines in order to play.)
  • *
  • Preparation for the game experience – setting up the board, turning on console
  • *
  • Gameplay itself – Depends on the game
  • * Do I stop?
  • After-play – Recap of experience, seeking information, speaking with friends.
  • * Replay or…
  • Abandonment of game product – Temporary removal?

21:49 – Summary of the EGE model

22:15 – Critical decisions
See * in list above.

25:16 – User states
Situations of the player. Changing our activities/preferences during the experience.
(Pretty picture at 26:56.)
The player is in different states between different steps of the EGE model. (But really, the user may be in many different states for each of the steps. The state of the player affects the experience in the different steps. Different players will experience it differently.)

29:44 – User context and resources
(Pretty picture at 30:00.)
Shows resources that the player may (or may not) use in different states.

31:45 – motives & drivers, resources, worldview & beliefs, situations
Affects the above.

32:14 – Affordances & thresholds
What is possible to design? Provide different things to the player. Require them to do things/restrict them from doing things.
(Pretty picture at 33:16, again.)
What is the target of the design?
Experience should make sense, investment – quality.

37:59 – EGE

  • Larger experimental context
  • Changing user states
  • Balance between affordances and thresholds

39:26 – Expanding your horizon for versatile game experiences
The model is work in progress, expands the horizons on game experiences.

http://intro2gamedesign.wordpress.com/2009/03/10/7th-week’s-podcast-and-assignment/ – Lecture 7, the EGE model.

http://intro2gamedesign3.wordpress.com/2009/02/11/classic-game-review-the-great-giana-sisters/ – My last blog on the course page, a game review.

I2GD:6 – Understanding players and play experiences

0:00 – Introduction

0:48 – Cultural Study of IT
Cultural studies of IT are multidisciplinary. Involves technology and humans.

To understand the role of players in game studies, one must understand both media and humans.

2:05 – Digital culture
Field of humanities, with literature and cinema studies. How digital tech provides new opportunities for expression, new art forms (like games) and constraints of tech from a critical angle. What are the politics of digital technology?

3:30 – Hypermedia
Invented in the 1960’ies by Theodore (Ted) Nelson, concerns new kinds of text and media. (Like the web, media linked together.) Interactive media.

5:43 – Game studies
Emerging discipline (hundreds of academics in the field). Mostly non-technical (Game research is the more technical part. (Pathfinding and AI.) What kind of experiences do games provide, why do some people like some games, while others do not?

7:55 – Interdisciplinary triangulation
This is the triangulation used by Tampere Uni.

  1. Humanities
  2. Social sciences
  3. Design research

(See pretty picture at 9:48. )

Game design extends that picture with another triangle, this is not shown in the podcast.

13:20 – Theory of meaning for games
Reminder of Core/Shell-theory from lecture 2.

14:17 – Digital game = Digital media + Gameplay

Includes duality. How people feel when participating in the game. Also digital media, like impressive graphics and sound, and force feedback from controllers.

15:29 – Semiosis = sign-based meanings
Analysis of signs in game (texts, textual instructions, symbols, user interface symbols)

Also, how the character has been described in the game (e.g. are females described as feminine or masculine), ideological connotations, does the game try to make you feel in a certain way in regard to the characters. Messages that the game is sending.

Semiosis is the meaning making potential of the game.

17:39 – Ludosis = meanings born out of playful behavior
Not sign focus, something not in the game, but in the action of playing the game. Can only be understood by participating in the game. How does it feel to play the game? Is it engaging?

20:19 – People play differently
Same game – different meanings!

(This I mostly relate to everyone that claim to play (P’n’P) DoD, but everyone plays it differently. Just because the game has the same name does not mean it is the same game.)

In an MMORPG, some want to explore, some want to RP, some want to kill monsters. The game is a tool that a player uses for his own purposes.

A game must be studied with several different players, since players approach in different ways.

22:40 – Intense involvements in game and play produces immersion
(Swedish ‘Leva sig in i spelet.’)

Lost in the game or focused on it. Not only the RPG immersion, but in a wider sense.

23:57 – Games are complex
Three kinds of gameplay immersion exist (based on his own studies). SCI-model.

  • Sensory – Something pleasurable in the game. Impressive graphics? Good sounds or soundtracks.
  • Challenge-based – The interaction of the game. (Important for core of the game. Even nethack is popular!) A nice puzzle. Skill development is required. A game of chess can be immersive to players that focus on it.
  • Imaginative – Similar to immersion in a good novel or movie. Focusing on characters. (This sounds more like immersion in story rather than immersion in character from RPG theory.)

Good games provide all three. (Pretty picture at 29:09 with explanation, the aural map.)

33:11 – WIth the right methods it is possible to evaluate player experiences
Test your game early. How do players evaluate games?

(Pretty picture at 34:06. Results of SCI evaluation of games, based on survey.)

39:05 – Often players are just used as testers
… use them to provide ideas for the game too. Listen to the beta testers.

Developers often develop games that they like themselves, missing out on a more general appeal. Test, adapt and your game will be liked by more.

40:50 – Study of players

41:14 – Not much reliable information available about digital play
More is published now though.

41:35 – Industry figures show how game sales have increased
… not the same as how much people have played the game. People still play old Nintendo games even if they are not for sale. Causal games are not tracked in sales.

(Pretty picture at 42:39 showing game sales increase in the last decade.)

43:51 – It appears that people play in different styles or have different mentalities
(Mentalities – Mental attitude while playing.)

44:23 – Player motivations
Causal fun, intense fun, killing time, entertainment, achievements, immersion… The reasons people play. People have different reasons.

47:03 – People playing same games together form game cultures
Players that talk about play experiences (fanfic, forums, chats) consider this for your game. If your game gets a bad rep in a culture/community it will not get played and get bad reviews.

(Pretty picture at 48:48 game cultures in Finland.)

52:48 – Most people play in causal styles
Not everyone is a ‘gamer’.

E.g. playing with their kids, playing to relax, playing to kill some time.

53:44 – Conclusions

Games and players are part of an increasing participatory culture. Games are not in isolation. Some TV-shows are game-like.

You must understand the preferences of different kinds of people (age, gender, ethnicity)

55:16 – To consider

Is digital play becoming more pervasive (common to play games)? Are games coming into the main stream.

Can we see the rise of a ludic (playful/gamer) society? What happens when more people become familiar with digital media? What would such a society look like? What games would be generated? What experiences would they generate?

intro2gamedesign.wordpress.com/2009/03/03/6th-week’s-podcasts-and-assignment – The sixth lecture.

I2GD:5 – Analysing games, rules and narrative

The fifth lecture of the online course that I am taking has been released. I have not done any commentary on lectures 3 and 4, they contain little theory and are mostly enumerations of old video games and video game genres respectively.

This lecture has the form of an interview with Jesper Juul, done over Skype but with pretty decent audio quality.

0:00 – Introduction

2:20 – Presentation of Jesper Juul

5:58 – The book ‘Half real’
The relationship between game rules (system that the player is interacting with) and game fiction (fictional world). A theory war where people focused on one of either side, rules OR fiction. ‘Half real’ describes a system of rules AND fiction, from Jespers dual background in both literature and game development.

8:11 – The origin of ludology
Jesper speaks about his blog, linked below.

9:56 – The classic game model
Definitions of games. The history of boardgames, back to the ancient Egyptians. Games have had goals until recently, but modern games often lack a proper goal. Games must no longer have a goal. RPGs are one of the origins of the goal less games, since the rules are up to the GM (I find this very strange reasoning).

14:03 – What are rules?
Two schools:

  • Rules as limitations. The rules tell you what you can’t do. “Achieving a goal using less efficient means.” (I liked this definition.)
  • Rules both specify what you can’t and can do.

The rules are the game, esp for board games and card games.

In video games the computer upholds the rules. Therefore video games can have more complex worlds (Did he mean rules?) When playing real games you have to know the rules, video games include discovering what the rules are.

18.11 – Where does enjoyment come from in games?
From the interaction between the player and the game. Humans generally like goals with challenges, with direct feedback.

20:14 – The difference between single player and multiplayer games
Multiplayer games introduce social aspects.

The beauty of the rules in go.

21:47 – Emergence
Go has simple rules, but is complicated to play. Emergent games are asymetric as for rules contra complexity. The rules of go can be explained on a piece of paper, the strategy of the game fills bookshelves. Emergent games have more complex strategies than rules.

Tic-tac-toe is not an emergent game.

23:38 – The notion of fiction
Any kind of imagined world is the fiction.

The difference between the rules and the fiction. You have to follow the rules, but the fiction is more subjective. Example, some skip cut-scenes in video games.

26:27 – The creation of fictional worlds
“Space Invaders” tells a whole story in those two words. Just naming ink blots on a piece of paper creates fiction.

27:44 – Coherence
Mass Effect and Fallout try to create worlds that make sense, therefore they could be seen as coherent. Super Mario is less so, since Mario has three lives. Games don’t have to have coherent fictional world, depending on the game style. (I would link this to “immersion”, not discussed in the interview, especially Jespers discussion on KotOR.)

30:15 – The role of narrative in fiction
You can have fiction that is not narrative, for example a painting. Narrative describes a sequence of events. The Quests in WoW are narrative, but the game itself is fiction. Some claim that interactivity precludes narrative.

A discussion on why Tetris/Bejewled could be seen as having a fiction follows.

33:42 – More on ‘Half real’
Rules – Fiction.
You navigate games through both rules and fiction.

(Then a discussion on Tekken follows, but I can’t hear what they are talking about. At 34:52 he says a word that sounds like ‘penman’, but it makes no sense in the context.)

When playing you engage in both rules (real) and fiction (not real) at the same time, hence the title ‘Half real’.

36:24 – Jesper’s new book
It’s about casual games.

intro2gamedesign.wordpress.com/2009/02/25/5th-week’s-podcasts-and-assignment – Assignment five, the podcast can be found in the block on the right.

www.jesperjuul.net/ludologist – Jesper Juuls blog, mentioned during the interview.

I2GD:2 – Game culture

The second lecture of the online course I am taking has been released. Below are the notes I took while watching the movie clip.

0:00 – Meaning

6:20 – Experience

10:30 – Dual structure
Even the simplest game has this dual structure hidden inside. (11:19 Does he say ‘sign systems’?)

The Core is the gameplay. The heart, rules or mechanics of the game.

The Shell is the symbolic representation. What the game looks and feels like, how you experience or sense the game. Affects the experience of the gameplay. Needed to access the gameplay, core.

Experienced gamers look through the shell and focus on the core.

20:25 – Internal meanings
Like music can be interpreted as ‘romantic’ or ‘aggressive’.

23:40 – Games & rules
Distinction between different dimensions of rules (Salen & Zimmerman, first reference to the course litterature).

  • Opreational rules – The written rules of the game, the stuff you explain to others when teaching the game.
  • Constituative rules – Implied rules. The dictionary in Scrabble. The physics engine in FPS games.
  • Implicit rules – Social rules, sportsmanship.

28:37 – Magic circle
First described by Johan Huizinga.
The magic circle marks a border between the real reality and the game reality. Like a football field, actions done there are perfectly reasonable there, but not outside the magic circle.

When in a state of play you are:

  • Free and voluntary
  • Separate from everyday reality
  • Created and maintained by communities of players

31:47 – Game dynamics
Important for complex digital games.

34:41 – Forms of game and play?
Roger Caillois defined:

Types of games:

  • agôn – Challenge, combat.
  • alea – Games of chance. Randomness, gambling
  • mimicry – Role playing that tries to mimic or create illusion of other people. Simulations.
  • ilinx – Feelings of speed. Rally games or amusement parks.

Style of play (attitude):

  • paidia – Free form, improvised.
  • ludus – Strict rules based, tournament style.

Most games are a mix of several different categories.

38:10 – Two senses of ‘culture’
Something that only humans have and humans do. Something that can be passed through generations.
(Did he actually say what those two senses were?)

40:20 – Cultural roles of games
There are old games and toys.

42:45 – Subcultures
Distinct groups within cultures. Shared rituals, languages.

44:48 – Identity
Only a small part of people that play games identify themselves as gamers. There are many casual gamers, that play without being part of the subculture.

46:54 – Hegemony
Unquestioned domination of certain consensus views and values in particular cultures of societies. Certain thoughts are accepted as normal. Implicit values.
Certain games get more attention than others.

49:26 – Conclusion
Games are diverse.

50:20 – End

Reflections on lecture 2
Too many subjects in too little time. Maybe if I had read some in the books before watching I could have gotten more out of the lecture. Just leafing through the books and checking the contents did not give me any idea of a specific chapter in any of the books that was tied to this lecture.

The section on Game Dynamics seemed most interesting, but I will have to check elsewhere for more information on that.

pod.gscept.com/intro2gd_02.mp4 – Lecture two

intro2gamedesign.com/read – Literature list for the course

Registered and choosing a game

Apparently I should have registered for the course online before starting it. But an email to the admins at the uni fixed that for me. So now I am really taking the course, not just thinking I am taking it.

First round of essays have gone through, one on a ‘dream’ game that sounded quite a lot like The Sims. The other two were reflections on World of Warcraft and Fallout.

I am still having trouble choosing a game to do my final paper on. I have considered DesktopTD, but I wonder if I could stand playing that game much more. An other alternative is one of the Brothers in Arms tactical FPS games on Xbox, I have been wanting to play those for a year now, and this could be a reason to make me free the time to do so. It would be nice to do work on a real game though, like Pandemic.

intro2gamedesign.wordpress.com – The course

intro2gamedesign3.wordpress.com – My workgroup for the course

handdrawngames.com – Desktop Tower Defence

www.zmangames.com/boardgames/pandemic.htm – Pandemic

Group assignment

The course wheels that have been at a stand still are slowly starting to turn. I have been assigned to group three and will write essays on weeks 3, 7, 11 and 15.

Week 15, Easter, fell upon me. Not the traditional week numbering, the course starts couting this week. So course week 11 is real world week 15.

I cursed and swore, w15 (or week 11), that is GothCon week! I won’t be around to write any essays then! After regaining my calm I thought about it and arrived at the conclusion that I’d rather write an essay early that week, than comment on another’s essay late that week.

So things seem to work out for the best after all.

Update
The plan seems to hold, podcasts will be released on Tuesdays, so there is time for me to write the essay Tuesday evening, and I can leave for GothCon on Wednesday as planed.


intro2gamedesign.wordpress.com – The course.

intro2gamedesign3.wordpress.com/schedule – Our essay schedule.

www.gothcon.se – GothCon!

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