Game On

13 Sep 2009

"No! NO!"

There's real panic in my voice. The black-cloaked ghoul has popped up from around the corner of the tower block. He's much too close, running much too fast and screaming as he closes in on me. And I've come too far to die now.

I force myself into another all-out sprint, back across the lawn and around the corner.

He's gone, no doubt returned to his ambush position. Mostly they break off the chase after a couple of hundred metres. My team has scattered, two of us already dead and one more pinned down with ghouls on both sides. My phone is flat, so I stand under a streetlight to examine the paper map. I dropped my torch in an earlier escape and didn't dare go back for it.

In a straight line through the school, it's only a few hundred metres to the next safe zone at Banana Bridge. But my legs are burning, and the next time they spot me I'm not going to be fast enough. Lost in an unfamiliar city, ghouls all around me and my team dead or missing, I'm going to have to go around.

It's La Noche de los Muertos, and it's the best game I've ever played. With a crew of 40 and 200 players, it's a logistical nightmare to organise, but it features no technology and only one rule: Don't let them catch you.

By the second afternoon of the weekend games festival, the trend is clear. Circle Rules Football requires a goal and a yoga ball, nothing else, and the only rules are that you can't hold the ball and can't shoot from inside the key. It's a blast. I ran until my already-sore legs could barely move, calling "Yo! Sub!" at ever-decreasing intervals.

The Igfest Party was even less structured, with no rules at all. But in a nightclub full of people in robot suits, with an Upgrade Store swapping huge futuristic weapons for power tokens, there really aren't any ways to not have fun.

In comparison, four teams of eight completed LaserTrap: Bomb Squad and all had a great time. But it requires aching hours of preparation and a huge backpack full of fragile gear. Except in very limited circumstances, it loses in the fun-per-unit-effort stakes.

I fear that Korean Lazer Ball fits into the same category, with 90-second rounds meaning that, most of the time, most people aren't playing. Like LaserTrap, it's visually spectacular but has demanding technical requirements.

It turns out that it's surprisingly easy to design a game that's fun. I'm learning now to optimise - what can generate the most fun for the most people, the most reliably, with the smallest crew? How can I make this sustainable, so that I don't burn out the playmakers just as I get a critical mass of players?

Perhaps I'm not learning this so much as re-learning it. Children play with no technology and very few rules, with goodwill and instinctive dramatics filling the gaps. It's easy to think that with all the toys the adult world has to offer, we can make better games than that.

But really, we're just making it hard.