Looking At The Abstract Of Game Design
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  • Looking At The Abstract Of Game Design

    Game design is a bit like being a shark in that it has to keep moving, or it will die. Of course there are always exceptions, because some sharks have adapted to be able to keep breathing without having to move. This can have its advantages, but sooner or later you've reached a point where you stop moving. Then you become dead in the water.

    This week's essay was sparked by my watching a couple of episodes of the new Netflix documentary series Abstract: The Art of Design. It dropped last week, but it popped up on my feed there a couple of nights ago. Each episode revolves around a designer in a different field: an illustrator, a shoe designer, a stage designer, an architect, an automotive designer, a graphic designer, a photographer and an interior designer. On the surface these all seem to be very different from each other, but as you zoom in, you start to see the commonalities. Tinker Hatfield, for example, was an Olympic pole vaulter hopeful whose future in that was ended by an injury. He fell back into his studies as an illustrator and architecture student, and used this training to work with his track coach at the University of Oregon to help him design athletic shoes. After an audition with Nike he started working for them, and ended up revitalizing and saving the Air Jordan brand.

    Whether as a GM, or as a game designer, the ideas of design, whether in photography, graphic design or architecture, influence how I think to a great degree. In fact, the next book in my "to-read" pile is a book that I picked up on my recent trip to Las Vegas for my birthday, Obsolescence by Daniel Abramson. It is a history of architecture that looks at the idea of creating buildings and spaces that aren't intended to last for hundreds of years, but become obsolete within a short span of years (architecturally speaking, of course). You can see this principal at work in some buildings from the 1960s and 70s. Malls in particular.

    The book interested me because it seemed to sync up with some ideas that I read about a while ago, the research sparked by Desolation Jones, a Warren Ellis-created comic published by DC Comics. On the surface it was a spy comic that presages the Burn Notice television program, but with that crossroads of vision and brutality that you really only see when Ellis is firing on all cylinders. Of course, the story is just a carrier for Ellis' ideas, in this case a discussion of the architectural concept of supermodernity. Supermodernity and Abramson's Obsolescence tie together because one of the principle ideas of supermodernity is the idea that there are spaces (mostly public spaces like airports) that are designed for a transient experience, rather than a permanent one. The idea that spaces can be made simply to pass through, rather than to take root in.

    As you can imagine, this idea was one that a lot of people had a hard time coming to grips with. Most architects and designers felt that even transient spaces should have a sense of permanence to them, because permanence is calming to people. This shows how mindsets can be shifted.

    So, you're probably thinking to yourself right now "I've just read about 500 words on a site about role-playing games, and I haven't read anything about games or game design yet." In a way, that is what I have been talking about all along, and it ties in to the opening of this essay about sharks. Yes, you've stumbled into another "Chris thinks about gaming" piece that the internet loves so much.

    If it isn't obvious from my writings about gaming, its industry and the "culture" around, I'm not one for status quos just for the sake of keeping the same thing around.

    To bring things back to the start of the circle, it is probably fairly obvious from my writings that I am not one for maintaining the status quo just for its own sake. This is where the "sharks much swim or die" metaphor that I started this column with comes into play. We need to start looking for the game designers who want games that have different influences than an ancient list of mostly out of print books in the back of a Dungeons & Dragons book that Gary may, or may not, have read. One of the things that the interviews with the designers in Abstract points out is that successful design does not say in one place, and this principle applies to the design of tabletop role-playing games as well.

    It is more than just the influences that inform the settings, worlds and characters, too. It is just as important to keep looking at how games are made, and how they are played, in order to get, not necessarily better games, but games that have different perspectives and outlooks. This might even inadvertently lead to a more diverse set of games being produced.

    I follow a lot of different people on my various social media feeds. I have a lot of different interests, from gaming to comics to music to a lot of things, and my feeds feature that. I follow a lot of people who make the things that I like, and that I want to know more about. Joe Illidge, who was an editor at Milestone Media and a Batman editor at DC Comics, recently shared some art from a Brazilian artist who was doing homages to famous Marvel Comics covers by artist Jack Kirby.
    The art highlighted figures from African religion, which have also figured into Voodoo and Santeria beliefs, and they were incredible. When I saw them pop up in my Facebook feed my first thought was "How cool is this?" but that thought was quickly followed by "When can I get a role-playing game that is based around this concept?" This is the core of what I am getting at with this column. Role-playing games really need to look outside of the shrinking circle of inspirations and influences that have been done over and again during the last 30+ years.

    For game design to stay fresh and relevant there needs to be designers who are willing and able to look beyond these already existing influences, and figure out how to make the things that excite them into concepts that might work in gaming. They won't always work, Tinker Hatfield nearly torpedoed the Nike and Air Jordan brands with a misstep on one of the shoes that he designed for them. Yes, sometimes you can be too daring, and take things too far. The problem is that unless you push those boundaries out, you will never know if you've gone too far, or not far enough.
    Comments 13 Comments
    1. AriochQ's Avatar
      AriochQ -
      Interesting take on things. In my experience, RPG games seem to be coalescing around a more limited set of core mechanics but the creative material used as the concept for RPG games continues to expand. I think the two aspects of design, mechanics and concepts, probably have a very weak correlation. When I think of 'design' I tend to think of mechanics, but that is probably just personal bias.
    1. Christopher Helton's Avatar
      Christopher Helton -
      Game design should be everything taken together.
    1. Sword of Spirit's Avatar
      Sword of Spirit -
      It's funny that when I first started reading this I disagreed vehemently with the planned obsolescence on a level of instinctive idealism...but it's actually kind of something I already have planned for my design. I think the important point is that there is a difference between refining and improving systems and declaring existing systems obsolete.

      That isn't to say that I don't think there are obsolete systems. While I'm sure many would disagree, I think there absolutely are design elements and entire systems (many, many of them) that are built on antique rules and principles that have value only for nostalgic aesthetic purposes. (Kind of like, you know, most antique anythings.)

      So my proposal is that a system be built with with the greatest care to R&D to make the best, most lasting, system you can, while not limiting your future design to it if new ideas come to you.

      On a bit of a tangent (because it's something that came to mind) I had a thought about new genres/settings.

      New genres and settings are a lot easier than new mechanics (IMO), and can be lots of fun, whether packaged with their own system or designed to utilize multi-genre systems. One thing I'd honestly love to see would be a lot more design creating entire system neutral settings. Sure, you can just use a book series or movie series or whatever and say, "hey, it's a system neutral setting", but that really isn't the same thing. You can get a really valuable product by having the sorts of completely non-mechanical information that is most relevant to an RPG presented in a setting book or books that can then be used with a variety of flexible settings. Such a book wouldn't even need "conversion notes" or whatever. There could be some brief pdf downloads with suggestions of how to mechanically represent certain things in different systems, whether official or fan-made, but the main point is to make an innovative setting, completely system neutral, presented in the right format for easy usage with any multi-genre or universal system.
    1. MNblockhead's Avatar
      MNblockhead -
      There is such a rich heritage of history, mythology, and legend to tap from around the world and it drives me crazy to see the Hollywood rehash the same tropes, settings, and even remaking the same movie multiple times. But they do that because they have a difficult time making money on stories that take place outside of our shared cultural narratives with protagonists that don't look like us.

      This is why we have to have a white-man savior in our fantasy story about the great wall of China, or the last samurai, or a story about native Americans. All societies do this, I only beat up on Hollywood because they have an over-sized influence and because I grew up and live in the United States.

      If anything, RPGs are SOOO far more advanced than other entertainment media. We create stories and take on the roles of protagonists radically different than the players. Yes, we tend to dip back into the same well of Western medieval fantasy and Western science fiction, but the diversity and richness of our worlds and stories make video games, movies, and TV feel like a wasteland in comparison.

      I would like to see more RPG material not just "set in" other cultures' mythologies but created by people of other cultures.

      I've played in Chinese-inspired RPG settings before, but having lived and worked and studied in China and Taiwan and enjoying reading Chinese fantasy literature, the flavor has been all wrong. I want an RPG based of theThe Scholar, by Wu Jingxi. Published in 1750 (Qing Dynasty) but set in the Ming Dynasty (14th, 15th centuries) the story takes place in the same time period and most/many D&D campaigns, but told through a romantic lens, like many of the Artherian legends are romanticized histories and re-imaginings. The flavor of ghosts, and fox spirits, and dragons in this long tradition of scholars traveling to/from national exams is evocative.

      Again their have been RPG material inspired by kung-fu movies, etc. But they all seem to be make through the lens of a Westerner's eyes. Nothing wrong with that, but it would be interesting to see what settings and mechanics would be emphasized in RPGs made in other cultures. I don't know of any non-US or non-European RPG publishers. If there are, I would love to learn of them.
    1. Christopher Helton's Avatar
      Christopher Helton -
      Quote Originally Posted by Sword of Spirit View Post
      That isn't to say that I don't think there are obsolete systems. While I'm sure many would disagree, I think there absolutely are design elements and entire systems (many, many of them) that are built on antique rules and principles that have value only for nostalgic aesthetic purposes. (Kind of like, you know, most antique anythings.)
      Considering that I am considering running a game with the Classic Marvel Super-Heroes game from TSR, I don't believe that there are obsolete systems either. I think in RPGs it would be more a case of designing for a specific place and use, and then moving on. I think that this type of "obsolescence" could be game lines that are designed and created with the intention of being complete in a limited number of books, like what Green Ronin did with the DC Adventures game, for example. Games based on licensed properties are always going to have an end point to them, so I think that the best design approach is to make sure that when that line does eventually end the end result is a game that is still playable.
    1. Lylandra's Avatar
      Lylandra -
      The stunning similarity in the "core basis" of many many RPG settings (ranging from skeletal structures like what classes does a system have to which kind of races we want to represent to the political/historical/technological details of a game world) has always astounded me.

      I know that offering players a certain kind of familiarity (say, medieval europe style landscapes, structures plus elves and dwarves for fantasy and a multitude of humanoid races with planetary governments and FTL spaceships for advanced sci-fi) is playing it safe, but playing it safe easily leads to boring, uninspired copycat designs (oh and don't get me started on the nonsensical approach that every race needs males and females and Dragonboobs.) . Some developers went the easy, yet elegant way out of this trap to introduce a multitude of other options (races, cultures, classes...) so that both the traditional players and those who wish to play something different can coexist in the same system or "reality". But offering too broad of a spectrum can lead to a blended mish-mash feeling thar utterly lacks any kind of distinction.

      I guess starting with different source materials than Gary would be a good first step. Nowadays, we have, for example, fantasy shows like the "Avatar"-verse where you got anything but medieval european fantasy, including a laid out progression from a magical, pre-industrial world to the kind of steampunk/industrial revolution that culminates in the fusion of spirit magic and technology. (hmm, where have I seen this recently? ) You have sci-fi games and worlds like Mass Effect where humans didn't come first and FTL travel is an ancient technology. And we see themes like this appear in more recent settings, as, for example, in Numenera. And I hope to see this kind of creative play, moving away from what has been known for years and reimagining worlds and core assumptions more often in the future.
    1. Faraer's Avatar
      Faraer -
      Game design is a bit like being a shark in that it has to keep moving, or it will die. Of course there are always exceptions, because some sharks have adapted to be able to keep breathing without having to move. This can have its advantages, but sooner or later you've reached a point where you stop moving. Then you become dead in the water.
      What reasons are there to suppose this?
    1. SMHWorlds's Avatar
      SMHWorlds -
      A few short thoughts.

      RPG Game design and by extension some computer and "board" game design are a reaction to the point of origin. That would be the strange singularity where Kriegspiel melded into rpg (technically this happened twice and or was a longer process than we think). All role playing games even the first are a blue shift or red shift in reaction to that point of origin. In my mind the PoO is not a specific game, but a specific question needing answered:

      "Why do I need to make an rpg?"

      In a world of needs and wants, with a million ways a Gygax or Arneson or Stafford or St. Andre might decide what they want, the "need" to make an rpg, whether conscious or unconscious, was imperative. The first time I designed a game was when I was 10. The game (which I am reworking into a modern OSR) was a reaction to D&D. The first draft done I toyed with it and I answered the question "Why did I need to make this?" with the answer "I didn't". The reason? The Red Shift from D&D was not significant enough. It did not meet any real needs.

      We get so caught up in mechanics and story and to dice or not to dice, that we sometimes forget to answer that basic question: Why do I need to make this game? Profit? A need in the greater community? I have my own vision or version? What makes this game different from just some house rules?

      Additionally I think there is a desire in gamers and game designers to impose a certain amount of order on their games, with some wanting more and some less (again another spectrum) through probability or Improv (or a combination of both). This manifests itself in another question: "What would I have done, if...?" The question pertaining to other stories we hear and our reaction to them and whether they ended the "right" way.

      Just my thoughts.
    1. Cam Banks's Avatar
      Cam Banks -
      This is a great article. Reflects my feeling about design in RPGs also. There's a tremendous amount of pushback on it, too - there are going to be people who say that if the game doesn't include X or Y legacy idea (whether it's elves, or d20s, or hit points, or a monster manual) then it's no good. I embrace the challenge of confronting those persistent legacy ideas and encouraging new design and new approaches.
    1. AriochQ's Avatar
      AriochQ -
      RPG concepts rely on some amount of shared cultural knowledge. Western culture has a great degree of shared fantasy knowledge, making it easy to popularize a game in that area. Other areas, such as Sci-Fi, wild west, or horror, also have a pretty good shared knowledge base. When you start to get to the more esoteric game concepts, you draw from a smaller market.

      It does tend to be a Catch-22 in that to popularize a new concept there needs to be material produced and consumed by the culture, but production of new material is restricted by the limited audience. The development of steampunk is a good example of this. There was a hint of steampunk in the early writing authors like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, but it wasn't really a genre at that point. GDW's Space 1889, published in 1988, was the first real attempt to turn the concepts into a game but met with a lukewarm reception. I would posit because we did not have a sufficient cultural base in 1988.

      Around that time Gibson and Sterling started to popularize the developing genre in literature and by the early 2000's Hollywood had latched on with The League or Extraordinary Gentlemen, Wild Wild West, and various other movies and TV shows. From that point on, you see steampunk elements in multiple mediums as the shared cultural knowledge had hit critical mass and it now appealed to a broader audience, making games using the steampunk concept economically viable.

      So what does this have to do with game design? While a game drawing from Aztec mythology and pre-Columbian culture may be new, different, and exciting, the market is fairly limited since there is very little shared cultural knowledge. Everyone knows what you mean when you say 'longsword', very few know when you say 'macuahuitl'. Unless your game design is a labor of love, creativity is limited by economic/business forces relating to shared cultural knowledge.
    1. SMHWorlds's Avatar
      SMHWorlds -
      Quote Originally Posted by Cam Banks View Post
      This is a great article. Reflects my feeling about design in RPGs also. There's a tremendous amount of pushback on it, too - there are going to be people who say that if the game doesn't include X or Y legacy idea (whether it's elves, or d20s, or hit points, or a monster manual) then it's no good. I embrace the challenge of confronting those persistent legacy ideas and encouraging new design and new approaches.
      I think that we need to differentiate between the specific "Legacy" idea. There are those ideas that are mere tradition, those ideas that work well in any design, and those that have been tried and failed. I am not saying every idea has been tried, far from it, but quite a few have been tried and do not appeal to the audience in a broad way. Three wheeled carts are great, but four wheeled carts generally are more stable.

      I guess what I am saying is that to have a coherent game design, you really should know more about why you are making the game than it is just Redshifting away from older games and nostalgia. The simple act of abandoning "older" designs does not ensure a coherent enough idea to justify a new deign. It certainly can be part of a greater idea, for sure, but alone does not seem to equal quality.
    1. Cam Banks's Avatar
      Cam Banks -
      Of course. I think randomly doing things in game design just because they're not the way they're done up to that point shows no more sense than keeping everything just because that's how it's always done.
    1. Anon Adderlan's Avatar
      Anon Adderlan -
      Familiarity is almost always a better bet than innovation once you're established and concerned with the bottom line. As a consequence I've seen major movies, electronic games, and software platforms actually become less innovative (and useful), and the stuff based on 'western' concepts become increasingly shallow and derivative.

      I'm also seeing a lot of censoring going on when games from other cultures get licensed and regionalized. So how can we even begin to get those diverse voices when they're silenced the minute they become too divergent or challenging?

      On the other hand I'm not seeing any of this when it comes to tabletop RPGs. And how can a game be obsolete if it continues to be played for the same reasons, and evokes the same responses, as it first did?

      Unless we're saying (something about) the experience itself becomes obsolete.

      Quote Originally Posted by AriochQ View Post
      RPG concepts rely on some amount of shared cultural knowledge.
      It may very well be they depend on that more than any other media, in which case we should be looking for the next big cultural wave to ride.

      But that won't be coming from inside the tabletop game design community because their needs have already been met. And the rapid extinction of offline culture makes it really difficult to explore the problem space there. So we get #StarWars, #StarTrek, #LordOfTheRings, and #Zombies over and over again, all of which are arguably more popular now than they ever were.

      And while everyone in the community pushes for #Diversity when it comes to game designers, they still haven't made a compelling case for engineers, programmers, scientists, economists, managers, philosophers, advertisers, actors, architects, or other disciplines to become involved and participate. That's when #Diversity will really start to shine, so I'm glad to see shows like #Abstract being considered.
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