Story, Plot & Narrative
The Wonderful World of Genre

The Neurotic Game Designer

We all have our own unique neuroses, whether blatantly apparent, or unexploded madness. Mine have always been fairly self evident, such as my obsessive tendencies, and in my role of game designer, they even serve to assist me in some respects, although I have to remain ever vigilant that I remain in control of them, because given an opening they will start a coup to gain control of me.

In terms of my job, this isn’t a problem – what client is going to worry that their game designer or writer is working too much on their project, especially given that I am always working on a fixed fee basis, not by-the-hour? In terms of my life, however, I am eternally grateful for the support of my wife, who has acquired the dubious burden of ensuring that my obsessive tendencies do not swallow me whole.

One thing that has beset me my entire life is a swing between two extremes of demeanour. On the one hand, total arrogance  – the inevitable belief that I am the greatest game designer that ever lived, that everything I do is marvellous beyond all measure, and that my brilliant research in game design is unsurpassed, and will probably make my name live beyond eternity. On the other hand, crisis of confidence – that I have no talent whatsoever, that nothing I have done is of any artistic or commercial merit, and that my research is merely the deranged outpourings of a diseased mind.

I try to steer my ship between the two shores.

In terms of game design, I generally deliver the goods. I am especially proficient at mechanical design, for which I have a natural aptitude, and it is perhaps a great shame that I have ended up in video games where mechanical design is less of a factor in a game’s success. If I’d been born twenty years earlier, I might have founded the UK version of Steve Jackson Games, and would have been perfectly happy making my board games. Sadly, I missed the boat.

Despite my game design competence, I still doubt my abilities more than is necessary. Anxiety from other areas of my life impresses a certain degree of universal doubt upon me… For instance, despite a postgraduate education, a genius IQ test score (the test that measures… your ability to complete IQ tests), a happy marriage to a beautiful wife, and a company of my own, I still have trouble doing things that most people take for granted – like falling asleep at night without some form of distraction, remembering faces, or (in one severe instance) crossing the street without being run over.

On the plus side, this mildly intrusive anxiety drives my obsessive attention to abstracted systems, which serves to benefit any game project for which I am involved in, especially during the tweaking stage. (My staff, however, may have a different story to tell of this…) I have become quite adept at juggling interconnections and mathematics in my head, such that I can usually intuit how to repair unbalanced mechanics. The trouble is, I don’t often know when to stop.

For instance, on Ghost Master, the mechanics were balanced to hold up over a much longer game, but the implementation of the levels took such manpower that we weren’t able to make the game that long. I was so focussed on getting the mechanics ‘right’ that I failed to spot the games’ biggest commercial problems – that the elimination of micromanagement hurt the Hardcore appeal, and consequently the fiero payoffs for the game (which lie in achieving the Triple Pumpkins) were out of reach of many of the games possible evangelists because I had removed the potential to apply logistical skills reliably. I did it intentionally too, because at the time the audience model I had didn’t see the importance of the logistical play style to the commercial success of games. I had become too obsessed with the mechanics.

How many people, for instance, care that the power set and the costs of upgrading the ghosts was balanced to within an inch of its life, when the publishers failed to market the game and the Hardcore failed to propagate the game by word of mouth. The 90% review in PC Gamer magazine (US) vindicates the game design, perhaps, but still, the game languishes in obscurity, another curious oddity in the history of games.

I have poor luck in this regard. Discworld Noir received average 90% reviews in Europe – but the publisher’s US parent company (GT Interactive) went bankrupt and we never got a US release. Still, I do run into Europeans who loved the game, which is nice. I fear it has aged badly, however, although the script still has a certain charm. It helped that I had a good editor…

However, one area that my skills with abstract systems and mechanics has served me well is in simple designs. One activity which I carry out relatively frequently is the “Three Hour Game” – in which a new table top game is created in three hours or less (sometimes with the help of other people to produce the components). It’s a great game design challenge, and I recommend it to anyone getting into the field.

When you first start making Three Hour Games, you inevitably borrow a lot of concepts, because you don’t have time to be wholly innovative. You tend to quickly give up on boards, because they are too slow to make, and can’t be changed very rapidly. It soon boils down to a core set of flexible components – I keep around more than a thousand blank Dutch ivory board cards, some large sheets of thin cardboard (in case a board is needed), a bag of dice (all different kinds – polyhedral, exponential, colour coded…) and an assortment of counters. Making Three Hour Games soon comes down to conceiving the verbs of the game, and then instantiating the nouns of the game into the components I listed above.

The oldest surviving Three Hour Game that is still played is Legends, which I believe was made five years ago in Knoxville, Tennessee, with my wife and the man who married us helping with the cards. It co-opts an auction mechanic I originally designed for a game called Star Fleet Officers, which won a game design competition (when I was in my early twenties) and was going to be made into a board game by Task Force Games. Then the UK branch of the company shut down. See what I mean about the poor luck? Still, the auction mechanic works great in Legends, and I’m happy that it has survived.

I have a vast library of board games I have made, but none that I have published because to do so requires funding, and the potential returns just don’t justify it. We got close with Discordia Incorporated (the game design Non-Profit Organisation that I ran for a while… we published three tabletop RPG systems)… Discordia was a bit like Cheap Ass Games – except they had the balls to see it through. Cheap Ass’ most famous game is probably Kill Doctor Lucky – Cluedo meets the Ladykillers (which reminds me, I really should get around to watching the Coen brother’s remake of that at some point… the original was on TV here just the other day, and remains a masterpiece).

Although it is not impossible that I will sell myself into corporate servitude at some future point (I cannot predict the effect raising a family will have on my future self), for the time being, I am not so interested in the chance to work on the expensive game projects. I’d rather work on games that are like the Three Hour Games – simple, focussed and fun.

We are looking at the moment at making what I have dubbed “Verb Games”. In a sense, this could be seen as a genre nucleated by Katamari Damacy (and originated, perhaps, with Pac-Man). These are games whose core formulation is expressed in simple verb and noun relationships. In the case of Katamari Damacy, the formulation was Roll -> Absorb -> Grow. Takahashi-san then made sure that the game didn’t drift away from that formulation by ensuring that they added no unnecessary nouns, such as power ups. My hope is that our “Verb Games” can capture some of the innovative style of Takahashi’s game, although we are going to be trying to do it on a very thin budget.

That’s the fun, though – smaller projects on cheaper budgets have more freedom to be creative, and I’m really enjoying seeing the ideas we are coming up for them. The neurosis is still there, though. On the one hand, what we are doing is sheer creative genius/insanity (delete as applicable) – but on the other, are we going to be able to persuade a publisher to sign up for that? I must continue to chart the course between the two shores… on paper, it looks profitable, thanks in part to our development team being based in India and so offering a substantial cost saving. All we need is a publisher willing to explore what could turn out to be a profitable new approach to the low market.

As Bruce Feirstein said, the distance between insanity and genius is measured only by success.

PS: I'm trying on new names for my blog. Let me know what you think.

Comments

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Short and sharp is a game design precept that holds great appeal for me. Also, I tend to enjoy the games I play that maintain a very tight focus.

My wife and I call the two absolutes approach to self criticism the "Black and White Lizard" or the "All or Nothing Lizard". I have a "How Loud is your Lizard" logo based, in part, on our reminder to ourselves that we're not all of one, or all of the other, but endearing mixes of the two polar extremes.

I like the concept behind the The Neurotic Game Designer, but it's not as catchy as 'Only a Game' or even your subtitle, 'Remain Calm!'. You could go the Roald route and call it simply 'The NGD'. Of course, you also mention a ship in this post, and you have a decided bent for fossil/shell metaphor. Perhaps... Crustacean Captaincy: Sailing the Game Design Ship Between the Rocks of Insecurity and Overconfidence?

Bit of a mythological twist there as well.

Oh, and if you enjoy hearing this sort of thing; I don't tend to buy strategy games, but after playing the Ghost Master demo I strongly considered purchasing it. I believe it was a heavy course load that quarter, which eventually steered me away. Stupid life events getting in the way of spending money how I want!

"We are looking at the moment at making what I have dubbed “Verb Games”. In a sense, this could be seen as a genre nucleated by Katamari Damacy (and originated, perhaps, with Pac-Man). "

I personally feel this is more a design methodology than a genre itself. The genres are defined by the particular verbs - a game based around "Shoot" would not be recognizably similar to KD. It does seem like a solid design model for a highly focused game experience however - and innovation may be made easier using it, as (in theory, and highly simplified) all that you need to do to make an innovative game is pick an uncommon or underutilized verb.

Yes, it is a design methodology - but why shouldn't a design methodology define a genre? Remember that 'genre' just denotes a type or class.

'Reality tv', for instance, describes a genre of television programs with a certain methodology - the content of such shows is quite varied, varying from game show style to narrative style, for instance.

Genre terms only achieve a commonality of meaning through the grist of the mill of public discussion. No-one can predict what words will become widely accepted genre terms... and we are free to invent genre terms on whatever grounds we wish, with the proviso that we might not convince other people to use such terms. :)

It's interesting that you chose "shoot"... Unsuprisingly, none of the "verb games" we are planning use this verb - far and away the most overused verb in the industry. :)

"Yes, it is a design methodology - but why shouldn't a design methodology define a genre? Remember that 'genre' just denotes a type or class. "

Right, but to me, a genre groups games by related mechanics - all FPSes will have similar controls/gameplay, as will all actioners, adventure games, et al. By design methodology I mean a way in approaching the design of a game. In my definition, other methodologies would be the 'waterfall' method, the 'Hollywood' style (as written on GamaSutra), etc. While certain ways of designing games may lead to particular types of games more readily, I think it is more understandable from a consumer point of view to classify games by mechanical differences rather than developmental differences.

I would define "reality TV" mechanically as well - it involves 'normal citizens' broadcast on (usually live) TV and often in a game show format. There are certainly many subgenres of reality TV you can break them down into. Ultimately however, I don't know how the show is designed, I just know how it is executed; and to me, that is where the most important and visible differences to the consumer lie.

"It's interesting that you chose "shoot"... Unsuprisingly, none of the "verb games" we are planning use this verb - far and away the most overused verb in the industry. :)"

Of course. Just trying to make the point that since verb games can theoretically encompass any mechanical differences, it isn't useful as a genre term to me. It is an important classification, but it exists seperately from genre.

You seem to arbitrarily assign the synonym 'category' to distance from the term 'genre'. Why apply genre so narrowly? There are many genre schemes, not one.

The US retail genre categories (Action, Adventure, Driving, Puzzle, Role-playing, Simulation, Sports, Strategy) can also theoretically encompass any mechanical differences... just think about how varied the game mechanics of different games in the 'Puzzle' and 'Action' groupings are. (Especially when you consider that 'Action' includes platformers, FPS, fighting games etc...)

In art, genres cover both form and technique... isn't the acid test whether our technique produces games which feel related?

"There are many genre schemes, not one."

What I'm saying is that categorizing something as a 'verb game' exists on a seperate level from categorizing per mechanics. Verb games share only a similar design method; they do not neccessarily share any related content or structure or mechanics. It is simply a different layer of categorization.

"(Especially when you consider that 'Action' includes platformers, FPS, fighting games etc...)"

That always annoys me. The retail market tends to draw its genres a little too broadly. I don't see how that invalidates the usefulness of genres as a mechanical category, however.

"In art, genres cover both form and technique... isn't the acid test whether our technique produces games which feel related?"

However, the genres that encompass form and the genres that encompass technique are often seperate and independent. A cubist work can be done in watercolor, acrylic, sculpture, etc. In a similar vein, a verb game could be an action game, a puzzle game, or an object aggregator. It's not that verb game is an invalid classification; rather, it is a seperate level of classification that deals with issues seperate from what genre handles.

One way of developing three hour games in a commercially viable way might be to sell them to companies interested in web games (yahoo, etc) as java applications, or program them for phones, or something similar. There are a bunch of smaller platforms which simpler, better designed games would be very well suited for.

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