Apr 8, 2010

Open-Source Board Game Design

There is an attempt to create an open-sourced (kinda, it is only free as in beer, not free as in speech) game with the ultimate goal being to teach children about the animal kindgom. The game is called Phylo and shown here is one of its cards.

I've been thinking recently about collaborative game design. My own weaknesses as a designer have become more obvious over time and I've been thinking about how to get help with areas I am bad at. When I saw an attempt to design a game not with two or three people, but with anyone online who wanted to pitch in, I was intrigued.

I spent some time browsing the game's site and forums. I found some things they were doing right and some things that highlight the problems inherent in distributed game design.

First, let's talk about the smartest thing they've done: stay away from Pokémon. It was annoyance with children's greater knowledge of Pokémon over real animals that inspired Phylo in the first place. I'm sure this made the natural path to steal or closely mirror that of their bête noire to attract the children.

By going a completely different route, they have both given themselves credibility as well as avoided the trap of being seen by potential players as "like Pokémon, only without cool monsters".

Secondly, they've also put the crowd-sourcing to good use in the art department. For me, game art is an annoyance that I suffer only to the point of making prototypes playable. By not putting the burden on a single person for all of the art, they've reduced the boredom stemming from this ancillary activity.

Thirdly, crowd-sourcing also works well for their individual card design. Collectible card games feature dozens of minor variations on cards. This is not something you want to do all by yourself.

However, it appears the open source process is failing in some other respects.

Primarily, people are focusing on the least important parts of the game. Adding illustrations is nice, but the rules were written by a single person and don't appear to have been refined much at all. Furthermore, it is pretty poorly worded (I'm a heavy board and CCG player and this took me a few passes to wrap my head around). No one is taking charge to make sure that these get tested and changed when needed. This game needs more design work and less arguing over the font for the logo.

The other problem I noticed is that when you have lots of people work on a game, things become inconsistent. I don't know how this could be avoided.

Finally, I cringe when I see things like this:
Keywords are AWESOME. Use them.
If you're submitting a whole bunch of cards at once read over them and if you find you're saying almost the same thing over and over and over again in slightly different variations, consider making that thing a keyword instead.

For example, if you have several cards that are predators you may have described it slightly differently each time you described the effect. "The predators eats its target" "The predator hunts its prey" "the predators exhausts the target creature", etc. Make it a keyword instead! Condense those similar sentences into one keyword "Predator" and replace the text with the Keyword. Then everytime it appears on ANY card, it always works exactly the same.

Keywords also make it easier for younger kids to play since they may be able to recognize the Keyword even when they couldn't read the whole sentence without help.

Keywords also make it easier to play with cards in translation. Then only the rules for the Keyword itself need to be translated, not each individual card. Predator does the same thing in English and French. The French speaker just needs to be able to recognize the English word and can read the meaning of that keyword in the French rules. (or in Chinese or Russian or Inuit or whatever language the core rules are translated into)

Keywords increase accessibility.
They absolutely do not increase accessibility. Keywords are great for experienced players. They know the game. They've played it 100 times. Keywords let them quickly ascertain the game state without wading through unnecessary text.

What keywords do not do is help first-time, young players access the game. While I will agree that it is easier to read one word than a whole sentence, it is far more difficult to remember what complex game mechanic that keyword is supposed to instruct you to perform than to just read the card and do what it says.

This is especially true when you have lots of keywords, which is exactly what this person is instructing everyone else to do. You do not want players to have to reference the rulebook 20 times during their first game, or there won't be a second game.

Keywords make things easier for game designers. They make things prettier for experienced adult players. They do not increase accessibility for first-time players, especially children who won't be able to memorize these things beforehand.

No comments:

Post a Comment