Player Thirteen

18 Jan 2012

This is the story of a game that went wrong for me in a subtle and personal way.

There's thirteen of us playtesting, plus an experienced designer. As she explains the rules I'm breaking down strategy in my head - there's no prize, not even kudos, but instincts are instincts and I don't know how to play any way but well. Right: alliances, elimination mechanic, single winner, first-mover advantage, got it. I pick an ally and rapidly eliminate other players, starting with the first person kind enough to introduce himself. We split the spoils as we go. A momentary diversion gives me the chance to turn on my ally and eliminate him to get the other half of the treasure. He doesn't see it coming.

(By chance it doesn't work. But that's not important)

It's not until we stop that I notice how I'm feeling. There's no glory in this. I've done well but I feel .. dirty.

And yet this was a well-designed and well-executed game. At the time, I was absorbed by it, devising strategies, executing them, and getting the buzz that comes with pulling something off well. But afterwards was no fun.

This matters, because 'afterwards' is where players spend most of their time. A good game makes stories. Why would you tell a story you're not proud of?

This was something of a revelation for me, because I've said over and over again that aesthetics are less important than mechanics. I've been wrong. For some kinds of game, aesthetics are mechanics, because the aesthetics determine not how the game is played but who's playing.

Everyone plays a game as a character - either one that's been given to them, or one they created themselves. In this playtest, we'd been given a loosely defined "assassin" character, but - crucially - there were no props, no scenery, no backstory, and no names other than our real ones.

This meant that we were playing as ourselves.

That set up a conflict. The game mechanics required a calculated, malicious attack on a friend. I'm not keen on that - but I'm also not about to break someone else's game.

I think that this doesn't happen with games like Outbreak because, at the same time that you turn on your team, you're endowed with a character - as a shambling zombie, you don't speak or even move like 'you', and you don't answer to your old name. There's none of "you" left.

Something like Day of the Thing is a bit closer to the line, but still, you're not playing as "you", you're playing as the Thing. The difference is subtle but I think it's important.

So betrayal, in this case, was necessary but not fun (at least not for me). I don't want to have to decide whether or not to have fun, so generally, actions that lead to success in the game should also be actions that are fun to take.

In an early run of Outbreak, a player escaped the zombie horde by hiding in a bush for twenty minutes. It worked but it wasn't fun, and he shouldn't have had to choose. It takes all the tension out of the game if you know that just changing tactics slightly will be safe, but boring.

2.8 Hours Later used to suffer from this - if you stayed off the main paths, you'd never see any opposition all evening. They fixed it in the most recent run; trying to exploit it, exhausted, I got jumped by a chaser from behind a parked car on a random side street. Now that was fun.

Only certain combinations of designs, players, and goals will trigger this post-game shame in the first place, so it's not a big problem. (This particular playtest was a success and the game went on to run at a much larger event). But where it is likely to be a factor, I can see a few possible approaches:

  1. Don't use betrayal mechanics at all.

  2. Use them, but generate strong characters. Use costumes, accents, new names, stronger backstories so that people understand that it's the characters doing evil, not the players.

  3. Target the game to people who won't be affected.

I like to make players into heroes; only characters should be villains. If all the stories are ones that people are proud to tell, the game will be fun not just at the time, but for a long time afterwards.