Sunday, 28 December 2008

showing the diamonds

The book Creating Emotion in Games by the multi-talented David Freeman is one of my favourite books on game design. Aside from mentioning a number of techniques around the building of emotions into games, characters and settings he also provides some handy points of reference for those creating the same.

The concept of a diamond (or any four-sided shape) where an attribute is placed at each corner to help focus on what the entity needs to show is an elegant visualisation of ye olde list. You can have fewer corners (e.g. minor characters may only need a triangle or three attributes) or more for central characters (up to a hexagon is the limit I've gone for a major character).

Characteristics can be contradictory or distinctive; personality facets (blustering, obsessively neat) aptitudes (a love of puzzles) or character traits (uses two guns like Chow Yun Fat). Traits can be shared by related characters as common ground and this can extend to distinctive groups who need a triangle - individual characters may merit another corner if they're significant.

How these facets co-exist may suggest actions and appearance - for our blustering gunsel, his first appearance on a train may be in an immaculate grey morning suit with a chessboard-checked shirt and polished shoes, darkly muttering over a crossword puzzle in his newspaper. They may even suggest possible responses depending on how you solve the missing clue...

Also consider how these interact. Allies may have common traits (e.g. the gunsel hires thugs who dress perfectly, show skill with a pistol and who pass one of his puzzles) or complimentary or even conflicting attributes to spice things up (e.g. a locksmith friend who enjoys a good game of checkers but his slovenly appearance drives the gunslinger to bluster and distraction.

This can also be extended to locations - Hogwarts in the Harry Potter series is a private school (with all that implies) as well as a castle (stone walls, towers, fortified doors) with bewildering architecture (doors hidden behind portraits, rotating stairwells, secret passages) and even worlds as well (the example used in Visual Emotioneering on David's site shows this well).

The hoary mantra of "Show, don't tell" is to be exercised with these methods. Every attribute may need one or more markers to reveal it's presence. Following the premise that an audience may need three clues to indicate a clue, three traits per attribute can be considered sufficient to define a character's initial impression - be it possessions, environment or even behaviour.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

my kinsman, major molineux

Set just before the American War of Independence during the unrest in Massachusetts, the arrival of Robin, a travelling youth seeking his fortune in the town where his relative Major Molineux dwells is met with considerable suspicion from the town locals who appear to be in on a joke he isn't. Robin is your typical questing boy out to seek his fortune and visiting a rich relative to get a good start.

Along the way there are hints of people searching for Robin. Robin is cryptically told that the Major has been seen, is nearly dragged into a house until the watch passes by. Finally a local (whose guise seems infernal) advises him that Major Molineux will pass by presently. He rests at an abandoned church and is then taken in by a local gentleman who wishes to see his re-union.

The re-union takes place, for Major Molineux has been tarred-and-feathered and is being paraded around town by a mob including those who had previously kept Robin at arms-length. Everyone is laughing at the rustic who has now become the butt of a cruel joke. Molineux and Robin see each other before the parade moves on. Horrified, Robin asks to leave for the ferry but his gentleman companion bids him stay a few days first.

Hawthorne captures the isolation of the rustic traveller in a city, the longing for home and childhood and the way that city dwellers treat newcomers. Though his description borders on the fanciful, this is suited to his style and period and helps to foster the air of mystery that permeates the story. The city is hostile, promising much though the price always seems a little too high...

The story can be found here...

Saturday, 20 December 2008

game design, ARGs, social capital and social footprints

The concept of social footprint (as defined in Story Games) is the amount of time and effort you put into something to achieve enjoyment. While the discussion goes into the time spent around set up times, the appeal of games and whether what you get out of them is worth what you put in, whether that's fun, emotional validation and catharsis or gaining a greater insight into the people you play with.

There is of course an alternative definition, that of how much input is needed to make a sustainable or socially-responsible action take place. Social capital lets individuals and groups take effective action via social networks and shared knowledge. They can be contributions to other programs or institutions that provide resources and services available to individuals or groups. So if you click on a link it contributes to a charity.

The Literacy Site

Another example would be a shared wiki, where people who have access can add their own knowledge which may benefit participants in turn.

"All well and good but what has this to do with stories, games or even alternate reality games?"

A fair question - look at how alternate reality games discuss issues like conflicts around oil (like Exeo Inc for THQ's Frontlines: Fuel of War) and future designs like Superstruct, where ideas are sought from participants on the design of the future. Are the ideas generated being acted on in some manner or being examined outside of the context of the games in question? It may sound fantastic, inspiration can come from some very strange sources and player demographics reveal a surprisingly varied range of disciplines and professions.

Would it be cool to combine the game definition with the social responsibility and benefits definition? Apart from giving a percentage of profits to charity, also providing a shared pool of knowledge and benefits as well as the social capital of positive experiences and additional 'insider' benefits. Over time, these benefits may feed out to the public domain so that the game or story attracts audience by virtue of the information that's held within the public domain or even within the shared area.

Building this kind of thing into design precepts may not be the easiest experience though it would certainly be rewarding. And if you're going to offer an in-game experience, it is good to make the experience a positive one. Questions of legality, intellectual property rights, morality and ethics may raise their head depending on what kind of game or story you're trying to tell as participants may seek to leverage things to their advantage.

This is a big challenge. Who's up for it?

Saturday, 6 December 2008

roads less travelled

An idea has been bugging me of late...

The setting is late 1970 - early 1980s America, the kind popularised by Glen A. Larson etc. and with a soundtrack out of any number of drive-through service stations or AOR rock/punk/pop stations. The protagonists are road tripping vigilantes in pursuit of a carnival of horrors who moves from town to town on a mockery of a pilgrimage; in their wake people vanish, make extraordinary lifestyle choices or die under unusual circumstances. The vibe I'm looking at is one part Supernatural, one part Carnivale, one part Twin Peaks with a dash of Phantasm and Nightbreed to taste. The law doesn't think a travelling fair is responsible for all this mayhem - the carnival attracts some trouble of course but this craziness is outside the usual 'They made me do it...'

My question is this... would you want to be the protagonists? And why?

There are any number of reasons to pursue this band of performers - chasing an errant relative, looking for a missing love or seeking revenge on that fairground worker who stole all your luck. You might even be a fan of the show or a reporter. I'm envisaging a series of episodes based on a trail across or along America with the main focus of conflict being around the denizens of the carnival but with the occasional problem town or isolated community for relief.

Saturday, 29 November 2008

Fame & Fortune - The Basic Outline

Fame & Fortune was born from beer in a pub between four friends. Like all good ideas it was immediately forgotten about and left to incubate for a little while while reality exerted itself and I got on with other stuff. Things got hairy, some of us had children while others bided their time. The world moved on. Ideas were alpha-tested and kicked around to yield surprising results.

So let's state our aims here about the products:
  1. They must be easy to obtain.
    Distribution over the Internet is the obvious choice. Print-on-Demand services allows people to get a durable paper copy. Those who don't have the Internet will be able to obtain copies through the usual channels.

  2. They must be easy to enjoy.
    Presentation is vital - the product must be pleasant to look at and experience. Products must work 'out of the box' without difficulty. Product components need to be intuitive and enable clients to experience a state of being there, the ability to step up or the ability to express themselves within the setting of the product. Product use must be simple enough to accommodate basic mathematics & literacy while expressing concepts that permit sophisticated use.

  3. They must be re-usable and have longevity.
    A lot of products have currently high-turnover rates and planned obsolescence. Some are a product of their time. Some products seem to only be usable once and then re-used with significantly less impact. The ability to draw product components into other instances of use is desirable.

  4. They must mesh cohesively.
    If you invest in a product, it must mesh with other products. Product obsolescence is not desirable and to continually upgrade your product with no incentive to particularly do so leaves a bad taste in client's mouths, particularly if they have previous products which offered the capacity but which failed to deliver.
Some more design precepts around the games coming soon...

Monday, 24 November 2008

alternate reality games

The concept of alternative reality games has been kicking around since 1996 but in the last couple of years has considerably grown beyond the promotional media we all know and love from people like NIN, Lost and Microsoft.

This interview with Dr. Jane McGonigal (founder of Avantgame) explains how some of the more socially-ambitous effects of ARGs can be explored (an example is Superstruct). Give the lady a couple of points at if this rings any bells for you.

The construction of a story with social capital via gaining 'useful' information or media resonates deep within people. Whether it's the gamer looking for Easter Eggs, that schweet bit of merch or sneak preview of something larger, the social use of ARGs as described by Dr. McGonigal promises a few more twists on a familiar story.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

the black rider

This play was written by Tom Waits, Robert Wilson and William S. Burroughs which tells the tragic tale of Wilhelm, an inept German clerk who cuts a Faustian deal with Pegleg (a.k.a Mephistopheles) to get magic bullets which never miss in order to impress his belle, the daughter of a huntsman insistant his offspring is never marrying a bad shot.

Pegleg warns that one of the bullets will be under his control. Being naive, the clerk accepts and it's not until his wedding day that the twist is revealed as the last bullet is fired and his beloved is killed by it. Wilhelm goes mad and joins the Devil's Carnival as another performer and victim of superior cunning.

Waits also brought out an album of the same name, full of organ music, brass and and strings which makes a wonderfully creaky, menacing soundtrack for broken-down fairgrounds and backwater American towns.

The story hinges on the willingness to take the easy way out when confronted with their weaknesses to get what they desire; in itself a situation which can fuel a number of stories. The Faustian deal is also a core element and while it's a hoary part of legendry, it's supernatural overtures can be played up or down as needed.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Mindmapping & Wikis in Web 2.0 and offline

The following is a set of tools which may prove useful. I've included offline open source alternatives because you may be away from the Internet sometimes and want to write something up.

Mind Mapping - Exposition on the link. The following may be of note: - Self-organising, laden with features and easy to share.
gliffy - Multi-functional, allows collaboration.
text2mindmap - Allows you to convert a hierarchical list into a mind map. For quick conversions and simple outputs.

Offline: Freemind is a nice open-source tool which creates quick exportable mindmaps.

Wikis - If you don't know what a wiki is then click the link. The following tools may intrigue you:
netcipia - A multi-layered content management system with wiki pages, work areas (spaces) and RSS & PDF output.
pbwiki - Quick to learn, secure and spacious. - Eminently customisable.

Offline: TiddlyWiki. Very fast to set up, self-contained and intuitive. Internet Explorer users may prefer Wiki On A Stick.

Saturday, 8 November 2008

conflict webs and three features

Here's the pitch. You have an interesting location - you have a vague idea of what kind of people are going to be there. Now what? People in that location have to be more than just abstracts but they need to be distinctive, easy to understand without being cliche and there has to be enough but not too many...

The conflict web (hat tip to Chris Chinn) creates one or more conflicts between three to twelve individuals or groups. Each side of a conflict needs to be given a primary character and if appropriate two or more supporters to represent a distinct aspect of the primary character's point of view. Leaders and supporters need to have relationships with each other (usually positive or with a motive that forces support) as do conflicting parties (usually antagonistic).

Now, each of those characters or groups needs a little something to make them distinctive. Since three is the magic number let's give them three distinctive sensory features (pausing only to hat tip Jared Sorenson) and that should provide some fuel for whatever inspiration will follow. So let's say for example the leader of the first faction is Brazilian, wears a white fedora hat and has a tribal dolphin tattoo on his neck.

Rinse and repeat for your other individuals or groups.

Most mind mapping tools work good with this - not only can you place relationships between individuals but you can also annotate them as well. Their position in the conflict web and the distinctive features reveal relationships, implying history and background stories. Does our Brazilian leader practice macumba or does he just like wearing white hats and playing the mysterious stranger?

In any event, conflict and characters must be of interest to the protagonists be it as part of a scene or if they may support a side in the conflict. Flesh this out as little or as much as you need.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

token introduction

Hi and welcome to Fame & Fortune.

My name's Steve and I'm going to be aiming this blog at the following areas:

Role-playing Games (RPGs) - Gaming at the table, with books, with dice and with other people who want to have some fun. And you do want to have fun, right?

Stories - Their construction, delivery and impact on their recipients; you might find the occasional review and analysis of techniques which impressed me here; be it a display of characterisation, dialogue or structure.

Web 2.0 - Finding the good stuff and letting you know what is a fun combination; a lot of people have talked mash-up and cloud computing but let's be honest, theory is no fun without applications.

Fame & Fortune - This is a thought exercise in RPG publishing using tools which are commonly available. It's not about profit (that would be nice...) but publishing your own stuff has this whole new level of cool about it.

There is going to be some bleedover between these areas and some tangential posts to these core four elements. Hopefully it's going to be a bit more variation for you...

testing testing

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