What Games Do What Well?

I’m about halfway through Reality is Broken, a book about applying the principles of (video) game design to improving real life. It’s interesting enough that it will almost certainly merit a full writeup when I finish. So far it is both brilliant and profoundly flawed, and I’m not yet sure what the ultimate ratio will be.

One part that’s been much more good than bad has been talking about the things that video games do well. This is something that’s very useful to think about from a tabletop game perspective because the simple reality is that computer games have eaten a fair amount of our lunch (though don’t feel too bad, they’ve done it to movies and TV too). While a lot of the diminishment of individual product sales can be attributed to the diversification of the market (which is mostly a good thing), the scale of the hobby at large has definitely been impacted by the success of video games. As an example, there are plenty of people who might be a market for, say, D&D, but who have that itch scratched more successfully by World of Warcraft.
Accepting that premise and the paired premise that growing the hobby is a good thing (you’re not obliged to, but I do), there are two obvious responses.

First, you can design games that are more like video games, hoping to capture the interest of that segment of the audience, or even just a portion of it. This has the advantage of catering to a known market (we know the WoW players are out there, and they’re enjoying killing dragons) and of being concretely actionable (there are video game successes and failures that provide clear models). The problem is that there’s no real way to tell how sticky that market is (that is, how likely they are to stick with computers) and, more broadly, there are things that computers can simply do better than people (casually juggling huge numbers, obviously, but there are more subtle things as well).

The other option is to design games towards the things that video games do poorly or not at all. The obvious advantage of this approach is that is plays to the strengths of tabletop play (whatever you may think those are), and it is potentially a blue ocean strategy, pursuing untapped markets where there’s no real competition. However the drawbacks are daunting. First, there’s no real measure of how much of a market exists for such games, and the fear is that what market there is may already be saturated – the blue ocean may simply be a puddle. Second, there’s no clear course of action for design. Without a clear goal (like emulating video games) the overall process is one of throwing things at the market and seeing what sticks.

(There is a third approach which is worth mentioning primarily because of how it impacts discussion, not because I think it’s very valid. That is the idea that further game design is not the solution at all; the best of games already exist and, in many arguments, have existed for a long time and growth can be found in leveraging those existing assets in new ways.)

Obviously, there is a lot of room between these points, and most efforts will come down somewhere between them. For example, I don’t think it’s too outrageous to suggest that 4e was built with a healthy helping of the “more like video games” approach. That is not the same thing as saying that 4e is identical to a video game, but the influences are fairly clear. Now, I don’t mention this as criticism or praise, but rather to point out that someone has already made a very big bet on one approach. However you judge their success or failure in that, this changes the picture somewhat. If the 800 pound gorilla has already headed to the video game buffet, then you’re going to be competing with him for the shrimp cocktail, and unless you have a really compelling idea, then prepare to settle for very little shrimp.

Put most cynically, if 4e’s bet pays off, then you compete directly with WOTC in that space. If it doesn’t, then there’s a good chance it was the wrong bet. That is to say, under most outcomes, pursuing that same strategy of video game emulation is a lose-lose proposition.

Now, assuming you didn’t pack a lunch (taking the traditionalist posture), that leaves you looking at the covered buffet over where games do things computers don’t. There might be a hearty meal under those lids, or there might be spiders and dust. I dunno. But if you want to find out, it will be worth your while to think about what computers can and can’t do, and what tabletop play can and can’t do. Seeing that difference requires admitting that each approach has strengths and weaknesses, and that can be a hard thing to admit, but it’s the starting point of figuring out something really interesting.

More on this later, almost certainly.

7 thoughts on “What Games Do What Well?

  1. Jonathan

    there’s no real measure of how much of a market exists for such games
    Market research perhaps?

    no clear course of action for design.
    Again, see above.

    Sorry — not trying to be snarky. I just don’t think you need to try to produce, publish, and market a game blindly and hope it sells as the only means to find a new/better market for ttRPGs. With careful market research, and by building a tribe of dedicated fans whose opinions you trust, you can find your market. The building the fans part doesn’t mean producing, selling, marketing games either. usually it means giving people something they already value: content, on a regular basis. OK, I’ll stop now since this is about to turn into a Seth Godin infomercial…

    You hint at something key here: what do table top games do WELL that video games try to do well but struggle with. That’s easy: they are social. Dispite all the headsets, FB integration, VoIP tech, etc etc seen in all the new online games – they still and may never don’t beat board games or table top RPGs in terms of the social interaction. There’s just no replacement for face-to-face gaming.

    Of course, the BIGGEST draw for videogames is the pick-up-and-play aspect of the games. You don’t need to plan a game night, just fire up your PC or XBOX and your golden. And games like WoW or COD offer enough social interaction (for some) to be satisfying enough to scratch that “I had fun with other people today” itch.

    I think the latter point here is where table top games, esp. RPGs, could see some innovation. A game that can span multiple sessions (like RPG “campaigns”), while simultaneously capturing that pick up and play dynamic would be a win win. I have some ideas that integrate technology into this, but inexperience and time constraints make it impossible to do alone.

    Google : “Social Media Roleplaying Game” – Mike’s article should be the first hit. It’s something Mike Brewer and I wrote about over on The Core Mechanic and Mad Brew Labs about a year ago.

    Food for thought maybe?

  2. Rob Donoghue

    @A.L. Good links, and a good plug! Thanks!

    @Jonathan I actually agree completely for the need for research and development, but those represent large enough challenges in their own right that I steered clear of the topic.

  3. buzz

    WotC? If there is an 800 lb gorilla around, I would think that it would be the video game manufacturers. Try to be more like a video game and you are competing against one of the most powerful and wealthy sectors of consumer entertainment. Your game will inevitably beg the question: Why aren’t you just playing a video game?

    Honestly, my vote is to pursue the blue ocean strategy. RPGs are capable of SO MUCH that is simply impossible to accomplish with current technology. Why use the seemingly limitless power of the human brain to emulate the limited capabilities of a bank of servers? Why make people crunch numbers when they could be crunching LANGUAGE?

    I seem to remember that some of the old marketing research WotC did around the turn of the century demonstrated that gamers tend to enjoy all kinds of games. Why try to sell them a PnP game that is, by definition, HARDER to use than a piece of software they probably already have?

    And even if the blue ocean targets a niche… targeting niches (and doing it well) is a perfectly legit way to maintain a profitable business.

  4. luz reyes

    As a person who has studied both the techniques and strategies of game design, this is a topic that I often ponder. My conclusion is that it’s not graphics or gimmicks that matter – just playability and consistent challenge.

  5. Goken

    Fun thoughts, I’m really enjoying this series. I’ve come back to this earlier post to quibble on your thoughts on D&D. If you compare D&D 4E to your list of things Computer Games do well, they have not applied any of them.

    What they’ve done is monkey around with fiddly bits like roles in combat and powers. That, to my mind, does not constitute anything like trying to do what MMO’s do well. Of course, their original plans to have online virtual game tables and support remote gaming might have done that, but nothing substantial has materialized.

    So I would say that the 800 pound gorilla is eying that buffet, but they’re doing a darn poor job of sidling over to it. It’s my estimation that the future of our hobby is at that buffet. If a traditional gaming company doesn’t create an online way to provide a true role playing experience, then a video game company will beat them to it.


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