Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Road to Amber: Lessons 1 through 5

As noted in yesterday's posts, I'm drilling down into the lessons learned from Road to Amber. The first half get run through today, and hopefully the rest come tomorrow.

Lesson #1. Everyone Wants to Control the Network

I blame Neal Stephenson. Basically, if you introduce the possibility that players can control some manner of in-game resource, there will always be a few who want to control actual things, like goods or armies, but the first thing that most geeks will ask for is the network. They want to control shipping or the bureaucracy or some other thing whose power comes from the ability to direct and control other things. This is not a huge shock: gamers tend to be inherently Jominian, and this is where their interest lies.

The problem is that they also tend to think they're being incredibly clever about it, and will often make a big show about how the thing they want is clearly boring and unexciting. This I kind of novel and amusing once, but eventually it just makes me want to bash heads in with rocks. Thankfully, I was given some perspective on this recently. See, my son loves these little dried fruit snacks we give him, but we need to be careful not to let him see the bag. He's figured out that the bag is where the snacks come from, and he will ignore snacks in favor of pursuing the bag. He's 8 months old, so I'm pretty proud of his reasoning skills. But I figure anyone older than that needs to realize that this clever idea is one that can be essentially grasped by an infant. Now, when I encounter that phenomena, I just imagine Jamie diving for the bag of snacks, and I smile.

So what's to be done about it? My instinct is to allow it, but set things up so that they understand why the bureaucrats and shippers tend to get the short end of the stick in any real conflict, but that's just mean. The reality is that if there's something that people want that much, it should be enabled. The trick, I think, is to make it more dependent on other players - if you want network play, then nodes really need to be other players.

And that's sort of the rub. Network play tends to be pretty boring in and of itself because players don't *need* the network. It's more fun (and more profitable) for them to horse trade directly among themselves. If I need iron or horses or whatever, why not go directly to the iron or horses or whatever guy? The upshot is that the network guy only ends up working with a very generous player, one who is committed to connecting other people. That's rewarding, but it's a lot of work. There are other solutions: network guy is often treated as controlling things no one else cares about, but the myriad ways that can go wrong are just overwhelming.

All of which is to say, I don't really have a solution for this one yet, except that it's something you need to keep an eye on. If you're going to allow PCs to take network roles, then you need to have some reason for people to seek them out as connectors. There may be a temptation to give them more information, but that's a bad plan, as that tends to turn them into information brokers. That's cool for them, but it's a whole other niche.

Ideally, if you have a way for currency or resources to change hands, the network guy should be desirable because he makes such transitions more efficient. Consider a game of merchant prince's, where one family is dominant in shipping. When two other houses want goods to change hands, only 50% of the goods are transmitted (representing cost of shipping and such). If you can get a member of this third, network-ey house to sign on, then 75% are transmitted and the shipper gets some percentage, either fixed or negotiated[1]. This works because there's a clear benefit in going to the network, but at the same time if the network is an asshole, he can't *stop* play, as much as he might want to. As a bonus, our network guy is dependent on the other houses for his resources, so he's drawn more tightly into play.

Lesson #2. Focus was a Win
So, in addition to experience points, players accumulated another currency called "focus" it was accumulated fairly quickly (about a point a day) but it capped at 10 points, so there was strong incentive to spend it rather than let it go to waste. Generically, Focus represented the effort a character put into things when he wasn't playing, so it could be spent to study things, build things, influence events and so on. The specific things it could be spent on were cool and all, but the real triumph is that this tapped into the part of our brain that loves gaining and spending points. People enjoyed the very act of earning and using focus, and really seemed to enjoy that they could regularly do things with it.

From this I take the lesson to always include something like this. Whatever form it takes, the main idea is to have something that comes more frequently than advancement, and which can be spent for concrete things.[2]

Lesson #3. Complexity Should Emerge from Play, not Setting
This is the nicest possible way to say that players are not interested in nuance.

When we started things out, I wanted to noble houses to feel like part of the setting, not like one-note caricatures (this is the merchant house, this is the military house, etc.) The same thinking was applied to the creation of the Golden Circle shadows (the alternate worlds near Amber). In both cases the idea is that there might be a strong theme but that it would just be the strongest note in a more complicated piece of music.

This was a knee jerk response to too many years of seeing organizations composed of stereotypes as the norm, and it was just a bad idea.

The reality is that players want the stereotypes. They want the groups to be simple enough to summarize in a word or two. This sounds awful on the face of it, since it seems to suggest that players aren't that bright, but that's not the problem. The real issue is that they want clarity, because clarity provides them with clearer impetus for play, and play is the ultimate goal. Creating a simple foundation lets players create exceptions (and oh how they love creating exceptions) and lets the complexity emerge from their play.

This is a pretty simple lesson to apply since it actually calls for less work on the part of the designers. You don't need to flesh things out - paint them in simple stark lines, and players will (hopefully) take care of the rest.

Lesson #4. When Rushed, Prune, Don't Seed
The initial rollout of RTA was slightly hurried, partly out of necessity and partly out of the discovery that people were already playing. That meant in a lot of cases we had to plant a flag in the ground where an idea was going to go, but just leave it at that with the expectation that we'd get back to it. It seemed necessary at the time, but as the game went on it became clear that with the pace that new things needed to be dealt with, the time and resources necessary to go back to those seeds was not always going to be available. This would be incredibly frustrating when a player found one of these flags, but it simply wasn't ready. Either we'd have to sprint to fill it in, or disappoint the player.

The alternative would have been to roll out with less initially - have fewer options available and fewer things going on, limited to those things that were fully fleshed out. That seemed very unappealing at the time, but in retrospect I think it would have been a much better idea. It would have helped forge a stronger central idea of what the game is about, and it would have allowed for staged release of new elements. The fact that this ends up looking like the average MMO release schedule is probably not a coincidence.

Lesson #5. Watch What People Use
Helix[3], bless her soul, loves statistics and hard numbers, and that meant that the game was set up to do really robust anonymized reporting on various game statistics. This meant we could see what people were spending on, what mechanics were being used or not, and generally speaking how people were interacting with the game. This made it incredibly easy to see what wasn't working, and it also helped to identify gaps that needed filling.

All of which is to say, put some thought into transparency up front. This is not limited to electronic media - do people take home their character sheets? Do item cards change hands? What questions are people asking GMs? Where is play happening? Where is it _not_ happening? These kinds of questions are the ones you want to stop and ask yourself during a game so that you know what's going to work better in the *next* game.

1 - Negotiated is really interesting since it tends to drive people towards their "fair play" reactions. The optimized transporter might say "You can transport 51% and I will keep 24%, everyone wins", and while he might be able to sell that to some, most folks will tell him to go piss up a rope. The marginal advantage is not worth the benefit he gains, even if it costs them nothing. Of course, if other members of the transportation family can offer cometing bids, it gets all the more interesting.

2 - Arguably, gold might fulfill this role in some games, but that depends a lot on the surrounding structure.

3 - Chief Poobah and Grand Code Wizard of RTA. Also the ninja referred to in the still-mysterious rule 0.


  1. I am totally interested in lunch and talking about the macroeconomic ramifications of 1. It's my opinion that the big "prop" level part of the game didn't work out while the smaller level, "focus" level part of the game worked pretty well. I'm wondering if the incentives weren't in the right place and how to balance the incentives better to make the economics of the network work correctly and as designed.

  2. Weirdly, I think the answer is even simpler than economics - I think that ease of use ultimately made the difference. Props were complicated, and it wasn't always clear what meant what. Focus might be confusing because you could do a lot of different things with it, but the underlying idea was really simple to grasp and use.

    -Rob D.

  3. That is certainly part of it. You have this thing, it has a level, it does stuff. It's not clear what that stuff is other than generate tokens -- and what are those tokens good for? I once generated one for 1,000,000 Begman Pounds! It was a poker payout.

    So you do get that extreme hesitancy that comes from things not being completely clear.

  4. The basic use of a token of packet is actually pretty handy, since they can serve as proxies or blind reveals, respectively. Both of those have a lot of potential utility, especially when trust is an issue. Uses beyond that, admittedly, get more specific.

    -Rob D.


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