The Gamemasters

The Gamemasters
The Contrarian: Roll the Dice

John Scott Tynes | 6 Sep 2005 12:01
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"They'd devise context, scenarios for what was going on in the game, but they never thought about how to communicate this stuff to the player. I realized they were unconsciously expecting to have a gamemaster there to set the stage. I told one guy, 'I can't ship you in the fucking box!'"

For one project, testers reported the real-time targeting was frustrating. The tabletop designer working on the game was used to systems consisting of math and dice, not physical skill. "What he considered game design I considered scribbling on a cocktail napkin. We needed actual mechanics, moment by moment, incorporating physics and player feedback, not just an abstract roll-to-hit system." Finally the lead designer made the bullets magnetic, so they would actually drift slightly to hit their target if they were passing nearby. Suddenly, the game was fun. "That's the kind of solution tabletop guys don't see, not at first."

Mitch's current project is a tabletop gaming property adapted for videogames. "We've stayed away from hiring tabletop designers for this," he says. "I don't want them slavishly adapting the source material. First and foremost, they have to make a fun videogame for people who never played the tabletop game, which is mostly everyone."

Tabletop designers do bring useful skills to the table - or rather, from it. Mitch cites texture as a big one, and he doesn't mean bitmaps. "It's the feeling that the world is bigger than what you're experiencing in this moment," he says. "Tabletop people can bring the illusion of depth. They're good at building a world that has internal logic, a sense of why."

He's talking about the cathedral and the bazaar. When you bring the people from the bazaar into the cathedral to spruce up the place, they set right to work on the stained-glass windows, creating mostly opaque views of what lies beyond to convince the players in the cathedral that there's really something outside. They're good at it.

But even here, the strengths of tabletop designers vary by type of game. Bioware has created a series of games that feel and play surprisingly close to tabletop RPGs, from the +1 Swords of Smurfing to the huge cast of characters and sprawling environments. They conjure up the feeling of an endless bazaar by layering on tons of story, even though your actual freedom to change or direct the story is very limited.

Other games make the effort but don't have a good way to express that texture. Look at City of Heroes. It's a terrific game, a real breakthrough in focused MMOG design. But the developers like to trumpet their 560-page story bible, in which decades of superhero history are lovingly inscribed with all their battles and villains and conspiracies and secrets. Tabletop gamers love that stuff, and as the co-author and publisher of a 432-page gaming sourcebook, I know what I'm talking about.

But could anything be less relevant to the actual experience of playing City of Heroes?

Really, they should touch a match to that whole document and stop talking about it. City of Heroes is a game of team combat, not storytelling. There is no exploration, no problem solving, no rivalries, no relationships. Everything is one superhero fight after another. The game needs cooler tactical scenarios for team combat, not cooler stories. They shouldn't be ashamed of that.

This is the kind of area where tabletop designers screw up. They get wedded to their richly textured worlds and intricate storylines, and they lose track of the fact that videogames are a completely different medium. They're capable of being fun without any story or world whatsoever. Tetris is one of the best games ever made, and there isn't a tabletop designer on the planet who would have thought that one up. But there are plenty who would have ruined it.

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