Sunday, November 1, 2009

What's It About?

I was in the roleplaying design business for seven years, and I've seen a lot of games come and go. Some have gone because, despite their interesting premises and innovative mechanics, they simply did not capture the buying public's imagination. Others couldn't get traction at the retail level. Still more lacked proper capitalization, and disappeared along with their publishers in a cloud of debt. One of the worst ways for a game to go, however, is poor execution (and I'm not talking about the rules, or bad cover design). I've seen quite a few games violate a simple principle: In order to be successful, a game has to be about something.

I remember wandering the halls of GenCon, looking for something refreshing and new. Eager, enthusastic game designers, upon seeing my exhibitor badge, would want me to take a look at their new, innovative game. They'd tell me how cool their setting was, or how it had a great new mechanic. Then, things would turn ugly, fast. "So what's your game about?" I'd ask. Sometimes, I'd get blank stares. Other times, I'd get answers like "it has derrigibles," or "it's about demons," or some other setting element they thought I should instantly get as being super cool.

"No, what is it about?" What or who do I play? What do I do? I'm a galactic knight defending the universe from other-dimensional aliens. I'm a fighter, descending into dungeons, killing the monsters and taking their stuff. I'm an intrepid investigator investigating Things From Beyond. In other words, what is the central idea behind the game? I can't tell you how many times I haven't gotten a satisfying answer to this question. And the game later fails.

I say this is one of the worst ways for a game to go because if the designer had taken the time to try and answer these questions (Who are you and what do you do?) they may have never wasted the time, effort and money to produce a dud. Or maybe they would have sharpened their ideas in order to produce a winner. Instead, the game arrives stillborn. That's sad.

Why are these questions important? For the consumer, it gives him or her an idea of the setting. It tells them what they'll be doing, while they sit around the kitchen table with their friends. It gives them a hook upon which to hang their imaginations. For the writer/designer, it provides a lighthouse on the horizon, a destination; anything that doesn't support the central idea can be cut out, those elements that do can be sharpened.

I'm not certain why some designers fail to take this into consideration. Yes, I'm sure playing demons is fun. What do I do as one? Yes, Victorian-era airships are cool. What do I play? If you can't tell me, I'm not buying or playing. Think about it, would you play Monopoly if someone told you it was a critique of capitalism and the real estate market in New York? You play a shoe and you buy hotels as you screw over your friends. (I'm told in the Soviet version everyone played a wheelbarrow and contributed to the collective wealth of the state. Bo-ring!)

In some cases, even if the designers know, it's not always a case for success. Sometimes, the public doesn't want to play viruses intent on infecting as many people as possible. But at least, armed with this knowledge, they can make an intelligent choice.

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