Monthly Archives: January 2012

Dispelling Some Myths About Fifth Edition (Part 2)

Unless you’ve been living in a particularly deep portion of the Underdark, you know that Wizards of the Coast announced that it is working on the Fifth Edition of D&D last week. Let’s be honest here: we know so very little about the system that any sort of useful speculation on its actual content is impossible.

However, there are several myths that are thrown around on the internet about D&D and its history that I would like to address. We covered one myth on Monday, here are two more!

Myth #2: The New Edition is Too Soon/a Money Grab

Well, let’s do some math:

First Edition (1978) to Second Edition (1989): 11 years

Second Edition (1989) to Revised Second Edition (1995)*: 6 years

Revised Second Edition (1995) to Third Edition (2000): 5 years

Third Edition (2000) to “Three Point Five” (2003): 3 years

Three Point Five (2003) to Fourth Edition (2008): 5 years

Fourth Edition (2008) to Fifth Edition (2013?): 5 years

The mean time between the release of a new Player’s Handbook is 5.8 years, and the median and mode are five years. What this tells us is that we are, based on prior performance, DUE for a new edition of D&D. There is nothing anomalous about their announcement. In fact, the anomaly here is the delay between the release of First and Second editions!

*”Wait!” you’re saying, “Revised wasn’t a new edition!” The problem with this is that there are quite a few indicators pointing the the fact that TSR wantedto release a new edition in 1995, and that they did, in a way. There were rumors of its development, so much that “This is not AD&D Third Edition” was printed in big, red letters on the first page. What’s more, the release of the Player’s Option rules really pointed to the development of a new, improved game (those books didn’t come out of nowhere). Player’s Option is, truly, a different game than core AD&D.

Myth #3: Gygax Would Hate All These New Editions

Well, this one is technically true. However, it is often rolled out in defense of Third Edition play, as if the style of play encouraged by that game is “what Gary wanted.” Nothing could be further from the truth. In his own words:

I’ve looked at them, yes, but I’m not really a fan. The new D&D is too rule intensive. It’s relegated the Dungeon Master to being an entertainer rather than master of the game. It’s done away with the archetypes, focused on nothing but combat and character power, lost the group cooperative aspect, bastardized the class-based system, and resembles a comic-book superheroes game more than a fantasy RPG where a player can play any alignment desired, not just lawful good.

As a matter of fact, Gygax disliked Second Edition.

Dispelling Some Myths About Fifth Edition (Part 1)

Unless you’ve been living in a particularly deep portion of the Underdark, you know that Wizards of the Coast announced that it is working on the Fifth Edition of D&D last week. Let’s be honest here: we know so very little about the system that any sort of useful speculation on its actual content is impossible.

However, there are several myths that are thrown around on the internet about D&D and its history that I would like to address. Quite simply, I believe D&D 5 could be an amazing move for Wizards, and gaming as a whole.

Myth #1: Rebooting D&D is Killing It

This sentiment is often followed by “X Edition is just fine!” Often, people point to the fracturing effect of edition wars as evidence to the idea that no new editions should be released. The idea that the shitty, toxic parts of the fanbase should rule the industry just baffles me.

Truth be told, this is a perfect opportunity for Wizards to do something awesome with D&D. Why? The answer is simple: DDI.

Dungeons & Dragons Interactive, a subscription-based set of web-based tools for creating characters, monsters, and scenarios, is one truly new thing in the industry. It’s a consistent, participation-based source of revenue for Wizards: basically, it allows them to monetize the fact that people are playing D&D! You don’t have to sell books, you just have to keep the players playing!

Every marker show us that DDI has been remarkably successful. A subscriber count from the WotC forums shows us that Wizards is raking in revenues of at least $400,000 a month from DDI, or $4.8 million a year. To put that in perspective, they would have to sell 342,000 more books (34.95 a book) a year – more than any edition of D&D has sold in decades, if not ever – to equal the revenues from DDI.

(Incidentally, this is the source of the “X game outselling D&D” claims. It’s true, they are being outsold on the book market; however, Wizards likely doesn’t care about anything but the bad press.)

What’s more, DDI is great for players. A new player can spend less than $40 and have access to every bit of rules content out there, fully errata’ed and revised. An existing player doesn’t have to purchase new books to keep up with everything. All you have to do is subscribe.

If DDI is so successful, though, then why a new edition? Well, Wizards isn’t perfect. Fourth Edition has succumbed to the same heat death that killed Third:bloat. There are thousands of powers, over five thousand feats, dozens of classes and builds. Quite a bit of those are useless from a player standpoint, and just clog up the character builder. Monsters are wildly variable in power and staying ability. Skill challenges still suck as written.

They tried the halfway-reboot strategy with Essentials. The best option is to tear down the system, and build a new one out of what worked in previous editions. They have the opportunity to build Fifth Edition around the DDI platform, instead of adding DDI as an afterthought. This is a real opportunity for success.

We’ll see how they handle it.

How Not to Design a Game System, Part 3: Polishing Your Turd

Last time, I talked about what a colossal pain in the ass it is for players when game mechanics don’t perform as advertised, and why that will cause your game to end up in the trash can. Today I’m going to talk a bit about how you can prevent that from happening. But, first thing’s first.

Game rules are not words from your heart.

For some reason, many game writers have this idea that when you write up some game rules, they are above criticism, without flaw, and inviolate. To some extent, that is true. True, in the same way it is true for trash novels that will never be published. The instant you decide that you want money for your game, you are simultaneously deciding that your game is a consumer product. Not art.

Secondly, people vastly overestimate the value of innovation and novelty in comparison to less sexy but much more important qualities like learning curve and consistency. People use words like “gimmicky” to describe games that have an interesting idea and nothing else. They use words like “fun” to describe games that are easy to pick up, easy to play, and deliver a consistent experience, regardless of how innovative they are from a rules standpoint. If you can’t make an innovative mechanic play as well as the less exciting alternatives, broom it and move on.

On to the practical matters. There are a lot of ways to test a game out, but there are some tried-and-true stages you’ll probably want to go through.

Do your homework first.

You can do a lot of testing just by gaming out various scenarios under the rules and seeing what happens. If you’re writing an RPG, get four guys (or however many are the recommended) and start coming up with some scenarios and acceptance criteria. For example, you might have some test encounters where the expectation is that for all of them, the players win after at least four but no more than seven combat turns and at least thirty but no more than sixty minutes. Then, come up with some “test parties” of benchmark characters and start running encounters. Run the same encounter two or three times, then switch the characters and go again. If you’re writing a wargame, come up with some sample army lists and start playing scenarios. One trick is to have the players switch sides (for a wargame), player positions (for a card or board game), or characters (for an RPG) after each turn and see what they think of the situation from the other side of the table. Make sure to include the GM in any switching procedure… they’re a player too, despite how infrequently people remember that.

Another key point is that, for this or any other kind of formal testing, you need a third party (not the GM) to referee the test, take notes, and switch the test scenarios when things get bogged down. His  job is also to make sure the participants remember that this is a test, not a regular play session. Part of that means not getting attached to what is happening on the table, and part of it means being willing to rip holes in your own work and that of the other people sitting there with you. Internal testing should be the most critical of the material, out of any of the phases, because external testers will often be reluctant to point out flaws in your work while you’re standing over their shoulders.

The purpose of this kind of testing is two fold: first, to iron out the basic mechanics, find inconsistencies, and surface submerged defects. Is the game taking too long to play? Is one type of character or unit totally ineffective? Is a rule too hard to follow, or does it allow for multiple interpretations? Are people having trouble keeping track of all the options that are available to them? And second, to start generating the test scripts and scenarios you’ll use when you test with people from the outside.

I strongly recommend omitting any kind of “discretionary” mechanics or conflict resolution systems (for rules disputes) that you are intending to include in the final product. Mechanics like action points and stunt dice can be great, but they’re basically just a lever players or GMs can pull when the game isn’t doing what they want it to do on its own. You should test these out later, but they’re just going to obscure underlying problems at this stage.

Also, make sure you thoroughly test the set-up tasks, character advancement, any kind of tournament scenarios or game-to-game continuity rules, and other grab-bag mechanics in the same way. It’s pretty easy to lose sight of those rules that aren’t used as much when you get into the meat of making sure the core mechanics are functional, but they need the same kind of attention.

Get fresh eyes on the material.

After you’re fairly confident that the bulk of the rules make sense, play at the speed you want, and don’t contain any glaring flaws, it’s time to get people outside the core team to test the game. You can do this at a con, your local store, whatever. You might be surprised how easy it is to get people to sit down and test for a while… it’s actually harder to make people understand that you are testing and not just demonstrating. Again, have someone present to moderate the test just like in the first step.

This is the stage where you want to find out if the rules are accessible,  not just internally consistent and coherent. This is the best time to find issues in character generation, army list building, board-game set-up phases, and so on. It is critically important that you get actual beginners to do blind testing of this stuff, because you and anyone else directly involved in the game will fly right through it without seeing the problems.

Similarly, your in-house group will develop a common understanding of how the rules work very quickly. You may find, however, that another group of people will read the same instructions and get a very different idea of how the game is played. If the testers start arguing with each other, that is a pretty solid sign that your rules haven’t been written clearly enough. This is just as true for Dungeons and Dragons as it is for Apples to Apples or Scattergories.

For adversarial games, thoroughly test the end-game. Set up a game in progress scenario and have some inexperienced people play it out to completion. One of the most frustrating things about adversarial games is when the outcome has basically been decided but the game shows no signs of ending. Make sure that even first time players can seal the deal in a reasonable amount of time.

If you’re not familiar with usability testing protocols, an easy way to get more information out of players at this stage is to tell them to think out loud. When they are going through character generation or army listing (which absolutely should be tested independently of the table-play itself), have them just say whatever they’re thinking. Prompt them if they stop talking. If they get completely stuck (more than one minute without progress), move them to the next stage on the script. And, by the way, have a script. You don’t need to follow it exactly, but you need to be able to skip forward if the testers can’t advance on their own. If you’re testing character creation and there are three steps (say, attributes, skills, and powers), have sheets on hand that have attributes finished, attributes and skills finished, and are completely finished with attributes, skills, and powers written up. If something breaks down and the testers can’t advance, move on to the next check point and hand them the pre-generated sheets.

And finally, a piece of advice: you’re testing the game, not soliciting suggestions. Don’t ask people what they think is wrong with the game. They don’t know, any more than you do. Have them play it, watch, and you’ll find out where the problems are. Incidentally, this is the bright line between a test session and a focus group. You can and should do both if you can manage it, but make sure you have the proper compartmentalization so that focus grouping doesn’t bleed into your test session.

Side note: Keep track of defects

Any time a tester has a problem, immediately write it down with a brief summary. Later, put it in a centralized spreadsheet and keep track of whether it’s been fixed or if you have decided not to address it. You don’t need to change something to respond to every complaint, but it is a good idea to at least know what’s been discovered and have a single location to track it all. Some issues are easy to fix, and you need to address them. Spelling errors, rules phrasing that people interpret differently, and other “broken” content should be your highest priority. If players seem to having trouble selecting their characters’ skills, or deploying their army, or showing some other common area of frustration, make sure you have a plan to address it.

This is important no matter how small your operation is, but it’s a make or break issue if someone besides the original test moderator is going to be responsible for fixing the problems reported.

Get lots more eyes on the material.

This is the part where you would want to distribute play-test materials to external testers who won’t be directly supervised. The reason you want to do this is pretty simple: once people get experienced with the game, they are going to start finding tricks and end-runs in the rules, some of which might ruin the game.  If you want words like “replay value” or “competitive scene” to apply to your game, you need to squash these problems with extreme prejudice.

However, you will probably find very quickly that this type of external play-testing is less than completely successful at finding the sort of problems I’m talking about. Unless you have a massive play-test program, you’re just not going to be able to get enough people to try out the material to find everything.

At this point you might say, “Hey asshole, wasn’t the entire purpose of this post to tell me how to find that stuff?”

The fact is, your game is going to go out with problems in it. The first edition of anything does. Eventually, people are going to find stuff in the rules that you never did. The only question is whether that will happen before they get deeply invested in it, or after. If it’s the former, your game wasn’t tested properly and will end up in the customers’ trash cans and on the tomb-shelves of distributors, where shitty games go to die. If it’s the latter, you’re on the right track.

Next time I’m going to talk about how to design with revision in mind, and some of the techniques and technologies you might consider exploiting so that you can fix your game after it’s gone out the door.

So You Want To Start a Game Business? (Step 0)

So You Want To Start a Game Business?
Step Zero: Stop! Do you have the money?

I’ve been asked by a lot of people to write a guide to show how to start out as a game business, instead of focusing on how not to do it. In light of these concerns, I think it’s time to clarify some things about how startups should (and shouldn’t) work, so that people understand what is proper and what is ridiculous. I’ll let you guess which of these things are more commonly suggested.

First of all, if you are thinking of starting a business, any business, I want you to stop right there. Stop thinking of your awesome game idea, stop developing amazing setting details, stop considering how your production model is going to change the industry. Stop!

Have you stopped? Good. If you haven’t, or you don’t want to, then you’ve already failed the first test. You probably want to write games, not publish them, and you should pursue that. It’s a difficult field, but you (and your games) will be better off.

We’re going to go over some things that everyone needs to consider well before we start talking about actually producing a game. The first one, of course, is money.

I mentioned this before, but I want to emphasize it: undercapitalization is one of the biggest killers of small businesses. You need money to start a business. There is no way around this. Any business needs capital sunk into it. But how much?

The quick and dirty method is all of your costs for the first year, plus twenty percent. Let’s take a hypothetical situation: new startup Badwrongfun LLC is interested in calculating how much capital it needs.

1. We’re planning on producing three games in the first year, which we have done our project cost calculations for (more on that later). These games are small-cost, small-run projects that will get us on the map as a game company and open up room for expansion into bigger, more profitable products.

The total costs for these games are:

Game 1: 1,000 (writing), 500 (art), 500 (layout/editing), 3,000 (production), 1,000 (marketing)
Total: $6,000

Game 2: 500 (writing), 1,500 (art), 1,000 (layout/editing), 5,000 (production), 1,000 (marketing)
Total: $9,000

Game 3: 1,000 (writing), 1,000 (art), 500 (layout/editing), 4,000 (production), 1,000 (marketing)
Total: $7,500

Total Production: $22,500

2. We’re going to run these projects virtually as a home office, so our adjusted costs for that are (essentially) zero. Since this is obviously a part-time endeavor, we’ll assume that the principal in the business is getting his main income from another source. As such, there’s no need to include any payment above and beyond any of the credited payments above.

When we do an income statement, we’ll write off part of the rent as a business expense, but there’s no reason to take care of that now.

Other expenses include a proper website and hosting ($1,000), LLC/tax registration ($300), and proper desktop design software ($1,000), for a total of$2,300.

3. We add a twenty percent cash buffer, rounded up to an even $5,000.

Okay, so our grand total is $29,800. Let’s call it thirty grand.

“Wait!” you say. “This is supposed to be a part-time business! How can I need such a ridiculous sum to get a part-time business running? That’s unreasonable!”

You’re correct. In this sort of industry, and especially for this sort of endeavor, that’s a large sum for a part-time business. Some of these costs are mitigatable, or delayable, and a few  reducible or available in trade.

Notice that I said some. You cannot start a business, a real business, with no assets. I cannot emphasize this enough: The less capital, the more likely failure. It is an absolute truth. Do not ignore it.

Now, let’s say we’ve got writers willing to work on profit shares, an artist or three who will do our art on 20% advance, and we’re going to do our out editing and layout. In addition, we’ve cut back the costs of our marketing plans to half. How much money do we need now?

1. Our total production costs are reduced to just $14,100.

2. We happen upon a software license, and find a student to do our website ($100).

3. Here’s a key: your 20% buffer doesn’t change; this is why we did the original calculations. You’re going to need that cash, I guarantee it.

This brings our total to $19,500, 65% of the original figure. Yes, that’s still a very lot of money. It is, however, how much investment you’re going to need, in advance, to start this small, part-time company.  You’re going to need this money when something goes wrong, and it will.

If you’re wondering why I’m running numbers for a business of this magnitude, and not the traditional idea of a lone hobbyist publisher, I would like to point you to my previous article on why this is such a bad idea.

Does it seem foolish to sink twenty grand into a game company? Well, we can’t answer that properly yet. Next time, we’re going to go into Step One: Define and Research Your Market, and determine if there’s any money to be made.