Thursday, August 29, 2013

2013 Fantasy Terrible Television Draft Analysis Part I

Last month we created the latest sensation in Fall Fantasy games of skill, with the objective of identifying the most futile of television offerings.

Six of us spend the last four weeks drafting from new and returning shows, trading draft picks and discussing the viability of late round picks such as The Millers and Once Upon A Time In Wonderland.

Every fantasy sport needs a Matthew Berry Fantasy Draft Analyst and so I will now review the key criteria to analyze while identifying the least successful shows that will air this Fall. We will start with the most important criteria and finish with the least important.

1. The Eye Test

The most important criteria in selecting a top draft pick in Fantasy Terrible Television is quite simply the most subjective. Some of the best research one can do is to spend an hour on Youtube watching three minute promos of new series.

The downside to this criteria if you fail to evaluate a show for its intended audience. I'm don't pay attention to many crime dramas but a show like Ironside (NBC) could turn out to successfully hit a spectrum of viewers that love it. On the other side  of the ball a show like The Goldbergs (ABC) looks so bad I traded up from 6th overall to 3rd just to grab it.  I just don't think anyone wants to revisit the 80's in a goofy sitcom. Case closed.

Bad Quarterback League Equivalent: Mark Sanchez (NYJ)

2013 FTT Strong Picks: 
The Goldbergs (ABC), Sean Saves The World (NBC), Dads (FOX)

2013 FTT Weak Picks:
The Blacklist (NBC), Ironside (NBC), Any Returning Hit Show

2. Longevity

The second most important criteria is how long a show has been on air. This seems clear as there is a strong correlation between number of seasons on the air and series renewal.

What this means for FTT of course is that new series are a goldmine for draft talent. This mindset is emboldened by the knowledge that in recent years 65% of new shows have been cancelled after one season.

It makes sense that 32 of the 42 draft picks selected this year in the LudiBerkeley FTT draft were premiering for the 2013 season.

Bad Quarterback League Equivalent: Geno Smith (NYJ)

2013 FTT Strong Picks: 
Welcome To The Family (NBC), Growing Up Fisher (NBC)

2013 FTT Weak Picks:
Any Returning Hit Show

3. Early Reviews

Seth MacFarlane seems to have run out of sitcoms to mock for Family Guy and created more material with his new sitcom Dads (FOX). The show has been crucified by the critics.

Of course in some cases there is no such thing as bad press. Television often isn't the right industry to use this justification.

Bad Quarterback League Equivalent: Geno Smith (NYJ)

2013 FTT Strong Picks: 
Dads (FOX)

2013 FTT Weak Picks:
None that I can find

4. Promotion

If a network fails to spend adequate time to promote a new show it may as well go ahead and start digging a spot in its network graveyard.

I have no idea what this is but I drafted it in the second round.

Bad Quarterback League Equivalent: Jeff Tuel (BUF)

2013 FTT Strong Picks: 
Super Fun Night (ABC)

2013 FTT Weak Picks:
The Blacklist (NBC)

5. Network

To reiterate the startling statistic from our second criteria, Longevity, 65% of new shows are gone after one season. NBC leads the way with nearly three out of four failing to achieve a second season. FOX even elects to cancel shows for no good reason. Not that I hold a grudge or anything.

On the other end of the network power struggle is annual top network CBS which seems to always finds its audience for every show in its lineup. It seemingly cancels a series every year that garners ratings everyone wishes they could have. That's the power of demographics.

Bad Quarterback League Equivalent: Matt Flynn (OAK), Terrell Pryor (OAK), Any QB for the Raiders since Rich Gannon.

2013 FTT Strong Picks: 

2013 FTT Weak Picks:

Part II Continued Here...

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Design Lessons from the D&D Next Playtest (Part 3)

The last post in this series examining the design overlap between tabletop roleplaying and strategy games will discuss the third installment of the Against the Slave Lords playtest from July 19 and podcast from July 23. Catch up on the first and second posts in the series if you missed them earlier. As always, we'll focus on interesting design decisions reached over the course of D&D Next playtest and how they might relate to more general design principles.

1. Expendable and constant-effect abilities need to be balanced carefully and in general, the formula of "effect equals probability times consequence" doesn't necessarily hold true. An effect that always works but is nominally less powerful is often more useful in practice than one that has a massive effect if successful but only a small chance of working. Therefore, effects that incorporate mechanical variance--die rolls, card draws, or whatever else--need to both be substantially powerful and have a way to mitigate that variance (or have a lesser effect even on a "failure") to be worth using in comparison to "always works" abilities.

The classic D&D example of this sort of balancing is the low-level wizard spell magic missile, which always works when it's used. Often, there's no need to use any other spell of the same level because magic missile is so reliable that it's automatically preferable--even if there are other spells that might be nominally more powerful. Among strategy games, Ascension does a pretty good job of constant-effect (construct)/expendable (hero) balancing: not only are construct effects not overwhelmingly powerful compared to heroes, but they do a good job of complementing hero abilities in creative ways.

2. The "flow" of a complex game has a large effect on its perceived complexity. Even though the same time might elapse over the course of one very long turn as in a few shorter turns, more shorter turns tend to feel faster as there's less time spent waiting for another action. There's an implication for actual complexity as well: fewer actions can be accomplished in a shorter turn than in a longer one, making turns more straightforward but at the potential cost of some strategic depth.

In both roleplaying games and strategy games, the best designs have enough turn-by-turn strategy that each turn features interesting and important decisions but little enough time between turns that time doesn't feel wasted. And regardless of how long a game actually takes, it's rare to walk away from the game wishing it had felt like it lasted longer. Rodney and Mike discuss this point in the context of a particularly climactic fight that took a few hours, but through sufficiently short turns to keep the action moving, the fight never felt bogged down yet offered enough complexity for the players to accomplish their goals.

3. Gaming should be fun. Always. It's a fitting point to end on because it's the most important design rule of all. Mechanical, strategic, and aesthetic considerations exist only to make the game more enjoyable. While designing a game, every decision should be made in the spirit of increasing how much fun the game will be to play.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Whodunnit? Post-Mortem

I've been missing the TV show The Mole for a long, long time. Since it seems like we'll probably never see another US season of it, my Mole withdrawal has sent me to the depths of streaming the Australian version from possibly legal websites... and watching Whodunnit?

Pitched as something between The Mole and Clue, Whodunnit was (ostensibly) about a closed-room murder mystery, where the killer was among the players, and the winner would be the one who unmasked the killer before he could himself be killed. It's a great idea, Agatha Christie meets reality television, but unfortunately Whodunnit fell far short of what it could have been. 

As a crime-themed reality show, perhaps the first game-show take on CSI, Whodunnit did a lot well. The idea to play at being crime scene investigators is novel and intriguing, and it was fascinating to see the meta-game emerge around the fourth week, where players began planning strategies around getting other players eliminated.

Evaluated as a game, though, Whodunnit's biggest flaw is that its narrative is about one thing (identifying a murderer) but its mechanics are about something else entirely (figuring out how the murders were committed). The winner won the game by being good at solving crimes, not by suspecting the correct person--in fact, his guess about the identity of the killer was wrong until the end. The analogy would be winning a game of Settlers of Catan without building any settlements, or Go without capturing any territory... and either of those two would be poorly designed games. Here are three ways Whodunnit could improve in terms of game design.

1. Better define the killer's in-game role. In The Mole, the job of the eponymous mole was simple: sabotage the game, but do it subtly, so that none of the other players catch on. In Whodunnit, it's much less clear what exactly the killer is supposed to be doing. Should the killer mislead the rest of the players so they couldn't solve the puzzles? Lie low and avoid detection? Put a lot of effort into the game and control the flow of information?

If yes to any of the above, the next question is why? What's in it for the killer to avoid being targeted (other than to maintain the conceit of the murder mystery)? Why does the killer care who stays, who gets killed, and who the other players suspect might be the killer? Aside from the psychological shock value, there's not much mechanical reason for the killer to be among the players at all.

Again drawing a (possibly unfair but probably inevitable) parallel to The Mole, players need the in-game chance to be able to say "hmm, person A acts so strange whenever circumstance X arises" or "isn't it funny how person B's team always performs the worst?" Giving the character of "the killer" a more defined relationship to the other players and to the events of the game ratchets up the tension and ensures that the players never stop wondering who the killer is.

2. Give the meta-puzzle some teeth. Whodunnit is--or should be--first and foremost a murder mystery, so the focus of the drama should be first and foremost on solving the mystery of who's committing the murders. But the day-to-day of Whodunnit is more often about the riddles and the manner in which each murder was committed. Geno might have said it best in a post-elimination interview: most of the time, it's more about the "how-dunnit".

The concept of Whodunnit made it seem like the weekly murder mysteries would eventually lead to identifying the killer. And how cool would it have been if there were a couple of random red herrings each week that, while totally irrelevant to solving a particular murder, gave some little hint about the killer? If the murder weapons or distribution of Scared cards encoded some pattern? If there were tiny clues scattered around the house that the players could find in their non-murder-solving free time? Or if the solution to each week's riddle provided a fragment of a larger meta-riddle that would reveal the killer's identity?

The idea here is to make the murder mystery something that can be solved instead of something whose solution will be revealed at some pre-determined point in the narrative.

3. Better integrate the murder mystery with the rest of the game. Once the killer's role is better delineated and the murder mystery is actually solvable on its own, the best improvement Whodunnit could make would be to give the identification of the killer some mechanical weight. To make one last comparison, the elimination quiz in The Mole is entirely centered around questions about the mole's identity, while by all accounts the Whodunnit quiz doesn't even ask about the killer's.

The Mole's system has a couple of intriguing strategic implications. Of course, it allows players more keyed in to who the mole is to remain in the game longer. But it's also useful in the metagame: as people get eliminated, their theories about who the mole is are likely to be the least correct, allowing the players still in the game to refine their own. No larger strategic plan is possible in Whodunnit. A player who is good at crime solving and plays the social game adeptly could accuse Giles the butler of being the killer every week and still win.

Other gamers and game designers seem to share the same critiques: the puzzling blog Clavis Cryptica has its own three criticisms of Whodunnit, which might sound a little familiar. Whodunnit was definitely worth watching, especially in the drought that is the summer television schedule. It might be worth watching again, now that it's clear that the real game is about crime-solving. Since it was pitched as who-dunnit, though, the game was disappointing in that the murder mystery carried basically no weight at all.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Design Lessons from the D&D Next Playtest (Part 2)

Continuing from last week's post, today we'll talk more about some of the design decisions made in the D&D Next open beta playtest and how they relate to strategy game design or design in general. This post will cover the live stream game from July 12 and the ensuing discussion on the July 18 podcast.

A well-designed game is reasonably intuitively able to be played even without looking at the rules. It's an interesting point, one that dovetails nicely from our recent discussions of approachability. Rodney and Mike assert that a marker of good game design is that if you open the box--literal for board games, more figurative for roleplaying games--you have at least some idea of how to play the game. You don't necessarily grasp all the complexities of the rules, and you certainly don't understand optimal strategies. But you have a decent idea of where pieces might go and how the board might look in its setup, early game, and end game.

There are two important implications of this design principle. First, it explains the enduring popularity of certain motifs in game design: moving spaces around a track by die rolls, winning tricks from hands of cards, completing sets of shapes or colors. Games that contain those elements make it relatively easy to predict the rules or gameplay just by looking at the parts. Second, making sure that games play the way you think they should play simply by looking at them removes barriers to approachability and encourages players to dive straight into the mechanics.

Two strategy games that do very good jobs of this intuitive leap into playing are Kingdom Builder and Carcassonne. Both games have boards that are easy to set up and pieces that clearly go places on those boards. If a new player opened the box to either game for the first time, she'd be able to reason through what the game was supposed to look and feel like almost immediately, even if she didn't instantly grasp the scoring or strategic nuances.

Mechanics should feel like tools in the hands of the players and not limitations. In some ways, this is an expansion of the previous point; if you feel like you should be able to do something in a game, the best games give you ways to do that. In roleplaying games, this is relatively simple: even if a situation isn't covered by the rules, the game master can pretty easily make a decision or institute a rule on the fly. For strategy games, though, rules tend to be harder coded, meaning good design requires a better forecasting of what naturally follows from a game's theme and mechanics.

For example, Settlers of Catan is about building a civilization, but it's not really a war or conquest game. There's no way to invade someone else's territory or steal their cities--but given the focus of the game, players don't really expect there to be, so it's not a limitation. At the same time, it does feel like there should be a way to defend your territory, which is why the knight/soldier card is so common. Settlers also handles resource trading exceptionally well, since it's natural for competing civilizations to want to specialize in what goods they produce. In contrast, when other resource management games that don't allow trading, that mechanic (or lack thereof) feels like an artificial limitation on something you'd naturally expect to be able to do. In this example, disallowing trading isn't necessarily a wrong design decision, but it's one that needs to make both mathematical and thematic sense before it's included in the game.

A game's numbers should mean something inside the game. Here's another nod toward theme, without which we'd just be throwing dice or drawing cards with increasingly abstract and complex rules constructions on top of them. Many, perhaps most, design decisions are made simply because it makes mechanical sense to do so. Maybe you draw three cards at the beginning of your turn to deplete the deck and to replenish your hand. That's fine; to be a good or even a great game, not every element of every turn needs to have deep thematic significance.

But it never hurts--and often greatly benefits--a game for its mechanics to have an in-universe, narrative reason to happen. In La Citta, citizens move from city to city because those citizens think they'll be better educated if they live elsewhere. In Tongiaki, ships sink if there aren't enough experienced captains among them to navigate the seas, and some routes are tougher than others. Perhaps Antoine Bauza designed 7 Wonders to have three ages because he thought that gave the right combination of brevity and strategic depth, but as a player, it's a lot more fun to think of it as pre-modern history getting divided into the ancient, classical, and medieval eras.

Next week, I'll be back with the third and (for now) final post in the series as the live stream game wraps up and the D&D design team offers its perspective on the game's conclusion.