Sunday, January 24, 2021

Admin: Keeping The Lines Open

"Build your own platform."

Good advice. Makes you anti-fragile and thus very durable against enemy action. One of the things I intend to do this year is to do is just this.

However, that requires resources. I have the time. The rest I need to assess, so until I'm able to act here's the stopgap. I'll be editing the contact info after this post to reflect the changes, but for now let me post this in the clear:

My contact email address remains the same, for now.

Yeah, I know this seems a let down after a full week of me going off about RPGs, but this needs to be done. Contact info will be mirrored at the Study and Empire.

In the meantime, go watch the archive of Gawr Gura celebrating her hitting two million subscribers on YouTube. Go Shark Gurl. And for my gamers, remember that the Metro City Boys still go live on Sundays about 6:30pm Central time; due to YouTube messing things up it may be on the Twitch channel instead- check both.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

My Life As A Gamer: On Dream Pod 9's Well-Known Mecha Games

I'd been talking RPGs all week, so I think I'll shift a bit to not-D&D games I like despite deep flaws in their design at one level or another.

This time I'm reminding my fellow mecha weebs about two games that are not BattleTech: Heavy Gear and Jovian Chronicles, both published by Canadian publisher Dream Pod 9.

I'll summarize both, respectively: Not-Armored Trooper VOTOMS and Not-Mobile Suit Gundam.

Yes, you can--and should--think of taking up the respective game, hitting up your fan wiki of choice and using DP9's game to run your fanfic campaign.

I would be remiss to neglect that DP9 put in a lot of work to make their knockoffs interesting original properties in their own right. They made--and published--a lot of setting material, following the example of FASA with BattleTech, and that likewise opened the door to other media. Alas, it didn't go nearly so far.

The problem was that, as is so often the case with setting material, it never mattered in actual play. Combine that with a game engine with insufficient mechanical distinction between characters, due to its clear intent that the RPG seamlessly integrate with the wargame, as well as a broken mechanical structure (all flaws shared with BT/MechWarrioras well as Mekton and Robotech) and it's no surprise that these were games more often read and talked about than played.

In short, DP9 created a series bible and a Proof of Concept for a TV series instead of an actual RPG- and then screwed up making the series.

The other RPGs in their catalog--Tribe 8, Gear Krieg, Core Command--repeat these fatal flaws to varying degrees with similar (dismal) results. In a medium utterly dependent on the Network Effect, this kills games dead.

The current leadership knows the RPG side of things is a non-starter. The proof is in the present product line, which is entirely on the wargaming side of things where there's an actual game to play (and actual money to be made), while the old RPG stuff is kept available via DriveThruRPG in PDF and POD (the latter for select products only).

I would welcome a renewed attempt at adapting any of DP9's properties to videogames; Harebrained's BattleTech adaptation is overall well-received, so there is an audience. However, DP9 has to do better than their most recent attempt, which might as well not exist.

There is a way to do mecha well in RPGs. None of the existing games succeed at anything but the build system side of things, because they don't bother to define what the game actually is- a fatal flaw in design as well as in business. When Palladium does this better than the big time weeb-fan games, you know you fucked up.

Friday, January 22, 2021

The Business: The Death Grip of the RPG Design Cargo Cult (Part 5)

Let's start putting things together.

  • Dungeons & Dragons is the most commercially successful RPG ever published.
  • People wanting to make money, especially outside of tabletop RPGs, noticed this and tried to replicate it.
  • The people replicating the design did not understand why it worked, only that it did.
  • It took people familiar with the gambling business to begin explaining why D&D's design worked.
  • Only now are RPG designers, especially in videogames, being deliberate in exploiting gambler psychology to extract more value from players.
  • You do not need to ape D&D's form to achieve the function of its design if you know why it works.
  • You also don't need to be a predatory shitheel and port in casino fuckery to make fat sacks of cash.
  • Mastering this knowledge is necessary, but not sufficient, to succeed.

All RPG designs are not equal.

We're leaving the week-long focus on leveling to the side to bring up one other critical aspect, something metric fuckloads of wanna-bees and also-rans screw up, and screwing this up means that your game goes out like Jek Porkins.

Welcome to another dirty secret of RPG design: Your setting and campaign premise matters.

Remember that gameplay loop? The context wherein that loop occurs matters, and it matters because players--especially new ones--need that style to assimilate the substance. This is not new; "Five Elements of Commerciall Appeal in RPG Design" still makes the rounds after all these years and people--idiots--still refuse to heed this proven wisdom. Then they wonder why they have to rely on crowdfunding to have enough cash to eat and pay bills while Wizards of the Coast can actually function like a real company.

There is one thing that the linked Five Elements nails that makes or breaks games: Anarchy. A lack of anarchy, both for the characters and the players, is what sinks games time and again.

Said article nails the character end of the issue. Commercial success relies on the characters being able to come and go as they please, untied to any long-term commitments of any kind; we have over 40 years of field experience across the world now to draw upon, and it is nigh-universal that players regard the imposition of such as things to be shunned, shirked, shrugged off, or shot through the head. No "kings by their own hand" here. (It's one of the reasons the old D&D endgame of Domain Management died off.)

What people have forgotten is that this also applies to the players themselves.

Since the rise of the Internet in the 1990s, complaints about establishing and maintaining a group long-term have been constant topics of discussion. Players do not want to make long-term commitments to a game unless they're "having fun" (i.e. getting consistent dopamine hits). This is nothing less than saying "Fuck you, PAY ME!" Gamers are consistent in this behavior, and have been for decades; they'll stick around so long as they get their dopamine fix, and as soon as that dries up they dip out.

(This, of course, doesn't account for external interference--change of work, change of household, change in marital status, etc.--imposing itself on a group.)

In short, your game design has to allow for drop-in/drop-out play as the default condition. Your gameplay loop must be short enough to complete in a single sitting; an hour or two per loop at the maximum. Blizzard Entertainment gets this; leveling in the present expansion (Shadowlands, as of this post) and the three preceding ones (Battle For Azeroth, Legion, Warlords of Draenor) when they were current had this nailed down, and shortened it further as the expansion went on.

Guess what authentic D&D accidentally nailed early on? Exactly this. As reported by Jeffro Johnson, and explained by Dave Weasely before him, this is the real default gameplay loop of D&D. This is present here and now in the winning MMORPGs--World of Warcraft & Final Fantasy XIV--and non-RPGs are picking this up deliberately now in their multiplayer modes (e.g. Call of Duty: Warzone).

Tabletop RPGs, as a class, remain mired in this false myth of the Ever-Persistent Group. Then they wonder why games and campaigns fall apart, and products languish in retail such that smart stores stop stocking them entirely in favor of yet more Magic: The Gathering and Warhammer 40,000 product. Either you accept that this is not, and never has been, the norm and live forever in a narrow niche or you swallow that pride (and the blackpill within it) and actually make what the players want.

What the players want is a satisfying gameplay loop that makes them feel good--accomplished--through dopamine hits that they know exactly how to acquire, which is what playing the game is al about. They can dress this up as a fantasy adventure of treasure hunting, but you can dress this up as a superspy mission (Spycraft), as a hunting trip to gank a gnarly beast (Monster Hunter), as a heist caper (Shadowrun, Cyberpunk), as autonomous mercenaries in a weird war (TORG), and more. These are the ill-spoken, but proven, limits of the RPG as a medium.

It also proves by demonstration that is IS a wargame derivative medium and NEVER a form of storytelling or other narrative bullshit. (That's why narrative "games" fail.)

Conclusion:The RPG is a wargame derivative that relies on a premise of anarchic chaos for the unit and anarchy lack of commitment for the player along with a promise of reliable dopamine satisfaction disguised as a core gameplay loop. That is your game design. You need no Classes to do this. You need no Levels to do this. You need only create the structure to produce those effects, and you need to default to drop-in/drop-out short-term commitment for multiplayer play. Do this and win.

That lack of knowing why it is so, and only blindly aping what works, is why RPG design remains in the grip of a cargo cult.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

The Business: The Death Grip of the RPG Design Cargo Cult (Part 4)

Levels are an overused design element.

When D&D first arose, Gary & Dave--as they tinkered their way from Chainmail to D&D--organically used Levels for three things: Unit Power, Ability Power, Threat Rating. Unit Power equals Character Level. Ability Power equals Spell Level. Threat Rating equals Hit Dice (monsters), Character Level (NPCs), or Dungeon Level (location). Some derivatives would add Treasure Level, and so on.

There is no need to use Levels for these functions, especially in videogames.

  • Levels are used to keep players from accessing content. This is unnecessary. "You must have the (X) Achievement", "You must spend (X) amount of (currency)", and so on work just fine and have the added benefit of making content access into treasure (and thus part of the Dopamine Drive) via being rewards earned through gameplay.
  • Levels are used to rank things. Also unnecessary. You have a Thesaurus, so use the proper word for the thing you're overusing "level" for.
  • Levels are used to to measure power. This is the most useful element, and a key contributor to why levels persist. Being able to measure, at a glance, power levels is a boon to normie-friendly game design; it's also not necessary to put this on "character level", especially in games where gear matters as much or more than the unit using it.

I say again: you want what Levels do, not Levels themselves.

You win by (a) putting that function into your design and (b) explaining in crystal clear language--appropriate for a child in elementary school, not an adult in a technical college--what that is, how it works, and how he can use it. For that aforementioned dopamine-driving gameplay loop, you want to tell the player what he needs to do to get that "DING!" moment. For the Game Master, you want to tell him how to build gameplay scenarios using the structural tools that you provide to keep that loop running.

You must tell those players. You must tell them in crystal-clear language. You must walk them through step-by-step how it is done. This is where videogames shine, as you can turn that tutorial into actual gameplay- now standard practice.

Tabletop is slowly catching up, but (yet again) we see that it was always there- just not where it was expected. Author and gamer Jeffro Johnson (of Appendix N) has done extensive rediscovery of this with regards to AD&D's 1st edition and the Basic/Expert forms of D&D, among others, and published those findings to Twitter and his blog.

Now, should you use Levels and Leveling?

Are you making a D&D game or a D&D clone (ala Lion & Dragon)? Go right ahead. Otherwise? Nope. You will stand out by not doing this. You will win by not doing this, and yet delivering on what the players want--crave--from a game.

Tomorrow, I'll add a few other critical errors that wreck would-be competitors and put down a Conclusion.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

The Business: The Death Grip of the RPG Design Cargo Cult (Part 3)

The key to commercial success in RPG design is to create a gameplay loop that also acts as a feedback loop. The player gets a dopamine hit every time that he completes the loop. He ties the dopamine hit to the gameplay paradigm, making him want to keep playing so he can keep getting those hits. This is why D&D and its derivatives are so dominant.

What a player has to do to run that loop is the whole of the game to him. When you see players complaining that there "nothing to do", what they mean is that the substance of the loop is exhausted so there's no more dopamine to be gotten from it. The game stops being fun, so they quit playing.

This is what AAA videogame developers realized when they finally started listening to folks familiar with how gambler psychology works. The proof is in the pudding; just look at how much casino trickery is in AAA games now.

The secret is to tell the player what they have to do to get that hit. This is the dirty trick behind why Leveling works. In AD&D 1st edition, players gain levels by earning Experience Points. Each level makes their character stronger across the board. They gain the most Experience Points by looting treasure and returning it to base, with each Gold Piece in value granting one Experience Point.

There is your game. You have a unit. To make your unit stronger, you must gain levels. To gain levels, you must earn Experience Points. To earn experience points, you must loot treasure and return it to your secure location for valuation; that total becomes Experience Points, with which you gain levels, and get stronger- all encaspulated with "DING!"

That is your brutally efficient game design.

The thing to take away from this example is the importance of designing the whole of your game around that gameplay loop. You don't need levels, etc.; you need to define what your player must do to make his unit stronger. Shadowrun designs its core gameplay around getting the currency--money, Karma, etc.--needed to buy upgrades. You execute a Shadowrun, you get paid, you buy upgrades. There's your loop. You'll find this loop with Cyberpunk also.

The flaw is that there is no "DING!"

By that I mean a big moment of accomplishment that releases the dopamine in a noticable rush. Instead, you get small and incremental releases that can be easily missed, much like no one notices the day-to-day things someone does for you but never fails to notice a big event.

You don't levels to get that "DING!" effect. You need a payoff that's big enough to get the effect. That's easy enough to do; you tell the player that they do X they get Y rewards as a big chunk. This is what real-world employment does: "Do X job, get paid Y amount". It can be, and should be, that simple; it ties into Leveling because of the other things Levels do.

So, let me sum up: You don't need Levels. You need what Levels do. Build your game around what Levels do and you win.

I mention above that Levels are used for more than structring a dopamine release schedule--which is what good game design, the stuff that pays your bills, does--and I'll get into that tomorrow.

Play the older games. They're often better at this structure than the newer ones.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

The Business: The Death Grip of the RPG Design Cargo Cult (Part 2)

This is the core reason for why RPG design is enslaved to derivatives of Dungeons & Dragons.

Tabletop RPG designers were original, and remain largely, tinkerers with a clue at best. Most of them are ignorant and incompetent when it comes to figuring out what psychology actually works in driving players to pick up a game, stick with, master it, and stay with it for years on end. More than a few over the years have been frustrated as to why D&D and its derivatives continue to dominate the market, especially in videogames. Their counterparts in videogame development figured that shit out years ago, when they started to do what the casinos did and applied psychological research to figure out what works to keep players playing. The answer is now staring gamers and designers in the face, and lots of folks do not deal with it well at all.

The reason that Levels persist is due to the dopamine rush that hits when you level up.

It's the same reason why random loot drops persist, even in games whose milieu makes this utterly fucking retarded and makes the studio and team behind it look like retarded Rhesus monkeys. (e.g. The Division) It's the same reason that the slot machine mechanics in gacha games exist. It's all about dopamine hits.

That's right, we're talking about how Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson accidentally hit upon the same psychology that casinos deliberately exploit to make their gambling business suck up all that cash from addicts and more casual players--be they high rollers or not--and now the AAA world (and trickling down into AA and Indie development) is applying it just as deliberately, especially for all Games As Service businesses like MMORPGs.

"But what about Classes?"

That's just as dead-assed simple: to simultaneously satisfy the psychological needs of various player psych profiles (which do exist, and are exploited). In group-oriented games, this also serves to create and support a framework for players to form viable groups with strangers; you know what a Fighter can do, what a Cleric can do, etc. and in more formal team environments this serves the same role as defined positions on a Football team.

The combination is brutally efficient at being something that drives players to play the game. Always one more boss, one more level, one more drop, etc. and so long as you have other players (in multi-player games) that you can rely upon to cover the gaps all of you are on the express train to dominating Dopamine Drome.

Even in single-player RPGs, you see this psychology play out and it's been the case since the earliest videogame adaptations like the original Ultima or Rogue.

Guess what those other RPGs I mentioned yesterday lack?

Yep, you got it: dopamine hits, on a predictable (and therefore managable and manipulatable) schedule.

Other qualities--lack of brick-to-face ease of use by normies being chief among them, followed by fucking retarded hispterism or worse--don't do those competitors any favors.

Like it or not, if you want your totally-not-derivative-of-D&D to actually compete and win then you've got to acknowledge this and make it work for you. More on that tomorrow.

Monday, January 18, 2021

The Business: The Death Grip of the RPG Design Cargo Cult (Part 1)

RPG design is, and has been for generations, trapped in a Cargo Cult. It's even worse in videogames than in tabletop games. To summarize: it is presumed, without the least bit of thought, that you have to have character levels and often literal classes complete with inflating stats as you go as well as gear and minion management.

It's not.

Videogames are all but entirely yoked to this cult. Tabletop games have long had competing paradigms, but they never married those designs to a model of gameplay as compelling as Dungeons & Dragons so they are routinely ignored by videogame developers- especially in AAA development. Below I'll name the most significant alternatives to D&D's Class/Level paradigm.

Classic Traveller has no Classes, or Levels, and the only way you're going to make your character's stats go up after you enter play it to spend lots of money and time on training- just like real life. (That means downtime, when your man isn't available to play, by the way.) Otherwise, it's about having the right gear and making the right connections to get ahead, and narrative logic is absent; this game wears its wargame roots proudly.

You need only two six-sided dice to play, so you can raid your normie pal's Monopoly box and be good to go. You can fit an entire PC on a 3x5 index card with room to spare, and rolling up a new man takes five minutes at most. Most of the game revolves around tossing two dice, adding modifiers, and attempting to hit a target modifier. The Referee handles all of the modifier tracking, so you as a player need only do the dice rolling. That's normie-friendly game design.

Champions is the premiere superhero RPG. No Classes. No Levels. It's notorious for being daunting for newbs and normies due to it being based on a LEGO-style philosophy. The game's core mechanics are sound and simple--you need to raid a Yatzee box and you're good--but the daunting part is that you literally build your man out of stats- especially superpowers.

In practice, most players use the full HERO game system and have a preferred edition--commonly 4th, 5th, or 6th--and that adds to the barrier to entry issue (in addition to the costs, assuming you're buying a physical rulebook).

HERO is also capable of handling other genres; this scope creep became necessary due to supeheroes being a sort of "cover-all", especially in teams modelled after the Avengers or the Justice League, which makes it easy to use HERO for everything- not a small benefit.

Chaosium's Basic Roleplaying system is the power behind the enduring horror classic Call of Cthulhu, based off Lovecraft's works, and it too eschews Classes and Levels. You'll need the full D&D dice set, but you will play very differently.

This is not confined to Cthulhu. Runequest, Pendragon, et. al. all work using variations of this game engine. See for yourself. They all play differently despite using the same core due to game-specific subsystems such as Sanity in Cthulhu, Pendragon's Passions, and so on prompting gameplay that conforms to the genre of the source material.

BRP (as the core engine is called) also lends itself to cross-genre play, and there is publisher support for doing so to some degree (if you need it). The game itself is friendly to normies, with game mechanics directly tied to concreate conquences in gameplay. It's very easy to digest as you go.

Good game design is not hard anymore to comprehend. Game mechanics must directly associate with, and correlate to, immediate and concrete consequences on gameplay. Game mechanics and concepts must be easy to comprehend and learn as a new user goes, during play. The game's core play paradigm has to exist, has to be something an average Kindergardener can grasp without issue, and therefore has a default structure to it that makes it comprehensible as a game- something with stakes to risk along with win and loss conditions.

There is nothing in that preceding paragraph that requires D&D-derived elements. Yet they persist. Why?

Dopamine.

Literally, folks. That's the reason is that leveling up is a thing, such that most who only do videogames literally think that it is either the entirely of the game or the majority of it (whether they like it or not), and I'll get more into this tomorrow.

If you want your own (legal) copies of the aforementioned games, hit the images above and pick your format; otherwise, hit up your local stores, including the used book stores.

There's also plenty of other lesser-known games that are very good games but don't get the attention. Feel free to name-drop (and link to) any other games of note that don't conform to the dominant Cargo Cult paradigm below.