Posted by: Rachel E. Towers | Comments (0)
As part of our support for the Choice of Games Contest for Interactive Novels, we will be posting an irregular series of blog posts discussing important design and writing criteria for games. We hope that these can both provide guidance for people participating in the Contest and also help people understand how we think about questions of game design and some best practices. These don’t modify the evaluation criteria for the Contest, and (except as noted) participants are not required to conform to our recommendations–but it’s probably a good idea to listen when judges tell you what they’re looking for.
If these topics interest you, be sure to sign up for our contest mailing list below! We’ll post more of our thoughts on game design leading up to the contest deadline on January 31, 2018.
Last time we gave some concrete ways in which our Guidelines connect with our Judging Rubric, covering Inclusivity, Length and Coding Efficiency, and Setting and Plot. For a refresher, here’s the previous blog post. This time we’ll cover our more game design and coding related categories: Creative Stats, Balanced Choices, and Conflicting Goals with Satisfying Endings.
Creative Stats (10% of score):
Stats reflect the main purpose of the game, and as such stats that reflect standard RPG scores like Health, Wealth, and Reputation generally do not lead to compelling decisions and rich end-states. Games that only include stats like that are likely to receive a low score in Creative Stats, and are also likely to have low scores in Conflicting Goals and Balanced Choices because they lack the necessary depth in tracking how the player character has reacted and presented themselves. Creative stats should be unique to the game or universe, should fit in the genre and style of the story, and should also compel a player to think about what the stats mean to them personally. For example:
- Je Ne Sais Quoi in Thieves’ Gambit: The Curse of the Black Cat is an interesting stat. It represents the PC’s ability to act and speak in a smooth manner, and is very much in the spirit of the heist genre. It is creative and unique in that it is distinctive to the game’s genre. A “special something” being one of the primary way in which the player interacts with the world is unique.
- Sleep in Choice of the Deathless is actually more creative than you might give it credit for at first glance. While almost everyone knows what it’s like to go without sleep, it takes on a special meaning in the context of working in a field such as law, where it’s very common to go a long time with only a few hours of sleep a night. It also acts as a foundation for the player’s understanding of the world, helping the fantastical to both appear more magical, and to be more relatable, because of that connection to the real world.
- The robot’s stats in Choice of Robots are a good source of internal conflict for the player, forcing the player to balance what they want very carefully. Autonomy and Empathy are naturally compelling (the game does a lot to build a natural parental feeling for the robot) but those come at the cost of Military and Grace, which help to save human lives more directly. In addition, Autonomy and Empathy are a unique application of stats to a story about artificial intelligence, a subject most people won’t encounter in everyday life.
This is not to say that more “standard” stats must be omitted. If they assist in telling a better story they should certainly be used, but a game with only such stats lacks a certain depth that more individualized stats can give.
Stats should also be consistently applied throughout the game. This means that, at the very least, it should generally make sense why a stat is changing. From reading the text preceding a choice, the player should have a general idea of how the options and stats are tied together (although this is also a factor of the design of the choices). You should also be clear and consistent about what makes a particular stat rise or fall: for example, if the option “I put on a baseball cap” raises Charisma in Ch 3, the same option in Ch 6 shouldn’t raise Stealth instead. Finally, you should make sure that you don’t suddenly change how stats are tested: for example, if the game’s mechanics generally favor having multiple stats at medium levels, suddenly have the final few choices require one stat at a very high level can make the game feel very difficult and unfair.
Games with interesting stats that help to bolster the rest of the game, and that are both interesting, and consistent in their use, are likely to score higher in this category. A game which contains only very simplistic, uncompelling stats that do not give the player any sense of engagement, which fail to use stats in a consistent way, or which fail to track stats a significant amount of the time, will likely score low in Creative Stats. A game which simply does not track a player’s decisions with stats will most likely receive an 0 in Creative Stats.
Balanced Choices (15% of score):
Most, or even all, choices should have three or more options, none of which should be “do nothing” options. If the player can choose to not do anything, it should only be in direct pursuit of a goal. For example, “I keep silent in order to pressure the culprit into confessing on their own” is a perfectly valid option, while “I’ll wait and see, because that will let me get more information” is a little more suspect (why not just give the player the information without them asking?), and “I don’t join the adventure” should not ever be an option.
No option or path should be better or worse than any other—that means both in terms of how interesting the decision you’re offering the the player is, and in terms of the stat effects each option has—the options in your choices must be balanced.
When reading the choice, a player should have at least a rough estimate of what the outcomes of the different options are going to be. If the choice is testing stats, they should have an idea of what option tests which stats, while if it’s going to raise, lower, or set stats or variables, the player should be able to gleam which stats are being changed. For example, “I put on a baseball cap” doesn’t tell the player much, while “I put on a baseball cap because it looks good on me”, or “I put on a baseball cap because I can pull it down to hide my face” indicate what kind of stat they may be raising. (More on Intentionality can be found in this blog post by Becky Slitt)
Games which compel a player to think deeply about the choices before them, or that encourage a player to play again to see all the other options they could have chosen, can score higher in Balanced Choices. Games with options which are uncompelling, or which continually encourage only one path (either one specific path, or choosing one path early and never deviating), are likely to score lower in this category. A game which contains many choices with only two options, with unbalanced options, or with options that routinely do not contain enough information, may receive an 0 in Balanced Choices.
Conflicting Goals with Satisfying Endings (15% of score):
Every game should have multiple goals that the player can try to achieve. Ideally, these goals should conflict with each other: the player cannot pursue all the goals at the same time, and must choose among them. The outcome of the game should never simply be “did you win or did you lose?” There should always be multiple ways to win.
More structurally, no ending should come earlier than about 75% of the way through the game. There should also be something dramatic and satisfying about every ending, even if the ending is unhappy. It’s fine for a game to have tragic endings, such as the player’s character valiantly giving their life to achieve at least some of their goals, but endings where a player simply fails everything should not appear.
While it is fine to have some endings be less satisfying, especially for failing a test near the end of the game (e.g. the player tries to push their loved one out of the way of an attack, but doesn’t have the speed to do it, and so while they save their loved one, they die in the process, while if they succeeded, both of them would have lived), there shouldn’t be any endings which are obviously more satisfying, and there certainly shouldn’t be an ending which is the most satisfying. For example, if the player has a choice between succeeding at running a small business doing something they enjoy or a big business they hate, that’s a good conflicting goal. If they can change the big business to be something they like, or can just purchase the small business at the end, that becomes an obviously more satisfying goal and all sense of conflict is lost.
The player should always understand why they reached the ending that they did. Having an ending come from nowhere, or an ending which feels like it’s not accounting for something leaves a lasting bad impression. Endings that ignore stats (e.g. no matter your ‘swordfighting’ skill you lose the duel at the end to build tension), insert a standard piece of epilogue which doesn’t work (e.g. you always settle down to a quiet life after the adventure, even if you were a bloodthirsty barbarian during it), or come out of nowhere (e.g. you make a wrong turn, fall off a cliff, and die) are not satisfying. No matter the case, if a player feels like it assigns qualities or actions to them that don’t fit, it detracts from any feeling of satisfaction. (Read through this blog post by Adam Strong-Morse for more about writing conflicting and independent goals.)
Games with multiple interesting goals, and that require players to decide what they want, will score higher in this category. Games with few goals, or that don’t have balanced or interesting goals, are likely to score lower. If a game has only one goal or a goal that is obviously far more important than any others, or only unsatisfying endings or endings that come suddenly, early, or leave the player wondering what they did wrong, it may receive an 0 in this category.
Next week we’ll finish explaining our Rubric by talking about Original, Interesting Characters, what exactly does Prose Styling mean, and give a bit of personal insight with the Judge’s Choice.