Games We’re Playing: Machi Koro and the Art of Simple Games

I’m a big fan of simple games. I know some gamers pride themselves on being able to play the most complicated and intricate games there are – and don’t get me wrong, I love those too – but sometimes I just want a game to be quick and easy to learn and play. I call these my “weekday games” or “zone-out games” or “I’m going to have a glass of wine with this game, games.” After a long hard day of working, the last thing I want to do is struggle with a game that’s going to use the same parts of my brain that have turned to mush and therefore further mush-ify them. No, I want to play a game that helps me relax. Generally speaking, though, I also like to play games with a wide variety of people, including those who aren’t big game players. Getting less experienced players into a game that takes five minutes to explain is going to make for a much better night than trying desperately to jam thirty minutes of rules into the brains of people whose eyes glaze over as soon as they see how many pieces there are. It’s important to make sure everyone’s having fun, and simple games are sometimes the best way to achieve that.

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Machi Koro was given to me by some friends for my birthday earlier this year. I don’t think it’s a game I normally would have picked up on my own, given its ultra-capitalism theme, so I was intrigued to give something I wouldn’t normally indulge a whirl. What I found was a game that was mostly fun, and definitely simple.

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Noirlandia is live on Kickstarter!

coverThe day’s finally here: we’ve launched Noirlandia on Kickstarter!

Noirlandia is a cooperative roleplaying game for 3-4 players about a desperate investigation in a fantastic city. Players work together to build the city as well as a murder mystery, which they then have to solve together… or lose their minds trying. Watch the video below to find out more!

We’ve been working hard for months to bring Noirlandia to Kickstarter, and we couldn’t be happier with the game we’ve completed and the campaign we’ve laid out. We want to thank everyone for their support thus far and their support in the future, too. Here are a couple of the awesome rewards you can get from backing Noirlandia on Kickstarter:

  • Noirlandia as a PDF or a softcover book
  • Your headshot turned into an illustration and used in the game and a glossy 8″ x 10″ print of the illustration.
  • Physical copies of all starter mysteries, including stretch goal mysteries, in sealed, custom-designed Noirlandia envelopes.
  • And more!

Here’s what people are saying about Noirlandia:

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We’d deeply appreciate it if you helped spread the word about the Noirlandia Kickstarter with your friends and networks! If it’s helpful, below are some sample posts for Facebook and Twitter.

Facebook:

Check out Noirlandia, the newest game from my friends at Make Big Things, and back it on Kickstarter! It’s a roleplaying game about a strange city and a dark murder mystery that you have to solve before it consumes you. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/hannahshaffer/noirlandia

Twitter:
Check out #Noirlandia on Kickstarter, by @MakeBigThings: a great RPG about a strange city and a dark murder mystery https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/hannahshaffer/noirlandia

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The Art of Noirlandia

Noirlandia is a game about dark cities and the dark mysteries they hold. Appropriately, the art in Noirlandia is often gritty and full of blurred lines. Here’s some of the concept art and experiments being made, some of which will be fleshed out and make it into the final game:

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The art in Noirlandia focuses both on the people at the center of the mysteries and the cities where the mysteries are born. Games in Noirlandia take place in the worlds you dream up: they can be so close to our own with one big difference, or they can take place in a fantastical space opera or fantasy setting, like an island city on stilts.

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Noirlandia chapter page - crimescene

At the core of every Noirlandia game is the story of a corrupt city, and how it corrupts the city’s people. There are suspects, victims, innocent bystanders, those who want to keep the mystery quiet, and people who will do anything to solve the case.

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All of the art here are concept pieces and practices for the game’s final design. The art will be used throughout the Noirlandia book as well as leads that you will pin to the corkboard to track down clues and suspects. Want to see the final art? Then keep an eye out for Noirlandia’s Kickstarter that will be launching around April 19th!

The Re-emergence of Interactive Fiction Games: An Interview With Game Designer Rebecca Slitt

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The Cover Art for Psy High, an interactive Fiction game by Rebecca Slitt

The internet and mobile platforms have given rise to many new kinds of games. At the same time, they’ve also helped older types of games find new life, thanks to the creativity of game designers and the enthusiasm of players. And interactive fiction (IF) is one of those more classical types of games currently going through a renaissance. Like me, you might remember the choose-your-own adventure Goosebumps and Animorphs books from your youth; but I can promise you that just like me, interactive fiction is now all grown up. (Although I don’t think interactive fiction has rent to pay…) Of course, there has actually always been people across age ranges playing interactive fiction games, it’s just that now the digital age has helped these gamers develop a new voice and a new community, appealing to people on desktop, web browser, and mobile platforms across the globe.

So we sat down with Rebecca Slitt to find out more about this intriguing and addicting game genre. Rebecca is an academic-turned-game-designer and longtime tabletop RPG player, who is currently working as a writer and editor for Choice of Games, a publisher of interactive fiction and text-based games. She’s contributed to the forthcoming game TimeWatch as well as Make Big Thing’s forthcoming RPG Noirlandia, and uses her degree in medieval history to make sure that her dragon-vs-dragon combat obeys the rules of chivalry. You can find her game Psy High, an interactive teen supernatural romance novel, here.

Brian: What are text-based and interactive fiction games? And how did you get into them?

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Rebecca Slitt on Halloween

Rebecca: Text-based games, aka interactive fiction, are digital games built around words. Which is a hugely general description, because there’s a huge variety of text-based games out there!

Some are word-based puzzle games, where your goal is to find the right combination of commands to solve a problem. That’s the style of text-based games that’s been around the longest, but there are a lot of other styles out there now. Some are essentially novels where the reader plays the main character, deciding how to react to events and characters and choosing where the story goes next. Some are immersive and impressionistic, where the experience of interacting with words on the screen creates an emotional experience.

I found my way into text-based games through – appropriately enough – several paths. One was through choose-a-path books, which I devoured as a kid. My favorites were the Time Machine series – they fed my love of history as well as my love of immersive stories. I also played in some old-school text-based online RPGs – MUDs, MOOs, that sort of thing. Some were freeform text-based roleplay; others were basically multiplayer versions of the earliest IF games in which you you’d type commands like ‘go north’ and ‘get torch’ to navigate your way through the game.

As for my entry into writing and editing text-based IF professionally, that was a very happy coincidence. Choice of Games was founded by two of my friends from college, Dan Fabulich and Adam Strong-Morse. I’d been playing and enjoying their games for years – and then they happened to be looking for a new editor at the same time that I was looking for a new job. That was in the summer of 2013, and I’ve worked for them ever since.

Brian: It seems as if text-based games and interactive fiction have been going through a reemergence. Why is that? Did they ever go away?

Rebecca:They never went away! For a long time, there has been a small but continuous and very dedicated community of people who play, write, and love IF games.

But you’re totally right that the last few years have seen a lot of growth and expansion in the IF community. It’s partly due to the increased ease of communication that social media has brought: it’s now easier than ever before for IF players to find each other, and for IF writers to spread awareness of their work. It’s also partly due to the development of new tools for writing IF, like ChoiceScript and Twine, that are free and very simple to learn. So people who want to make games in general find that the easiest path into that is to write text-based interactive fiction: there’s a relatively low learning curve, and no need to learn (or pay for!) complicated graphics rendering software. People who never had the opportunity to create games before are now able to, and that’s a wonderful thing for everyone concerned.

Plus, there have been a few really prominent IF titles in the last few years – 80 Days probably being the biggest – that have drawn new players and writers into the field.

So now there are more opportunities for people to write games, which means that there are many more kinds of IF being written, which means that there’s a higher chance that any given person can find a game that they’ll love to play.

Mainstream videogames have also recognized that a lot of players like a really strong story to their game, and choices that really matter. The popularity of Telltale’s games, for instance, shows that there’s a hunger for a player-driven narrative.

And, finally, the rise of transmedia and augmented reality games plays into the resurgence of IF as well – games like Lifeline where the player’s text-based communication is the game. It’s all part of the same impulse to put the player at the center of a very complex story.

Brian: On the Choice of Games website, there’s a lot of discussion of interactive fiction in the video game era. Do you also see any similarities between text-based games and tabletop RPGs?

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A screenshot of Rebecca’s game, Psy High, on mobile

Rebecca: Absolutely! GMing a tabletop RPG turned out to be my best preparation for writing IF. It got me used to thinking about stories that didn’t necessarily proceed in a linear fashion and could have multiple different endings based on other people’s actions. And what’s more, it taught me that I love telling that kind of story. I love that in both tabletop RPGs and text-based IF (at least, in the kind of text-based IF that I’m writing in ChoiceScript) the full story doesn’t even exist until the author and player cooperate to create it.

It also got me used to thinking about creating a story with only words – the kind of audacity of narrative that you need to create an exciting game. Unlike LARP or theater or conventional video games, in a tabletop RPG and text-based IF, you’re not limited by any technical constraints in what you can depict. Do you want a thousand-person crowd scene, or a giant spaceship battle, or a main character who can shapeshift? You can have it; all you need to do is describe it. It’s wonderfully liberating as a creator to have that kind of flexibility.

Brian: Do you have any advice for people who might be interested in getting into text-based games for the first time?

Rebecca: Play a lot of different kinds of games! As with tabletop RPGs or board games, IF can’t be defined as a single thing anymore – which is wonderful! It’s great for players, makers, and the genre as a whole.

So, play some ChoiceScript, some Twine, some parser, some inkle, some Storynexus. Each format will feel very different from the others, and each format will have a lot of variation within it. If you love puzzles, you’ll find them; if you love games with more atmosphere than plot, you’ll find them; if you love complex stories, you’ll find them. If you only have a few minutes to play you can find short games; if you want to lose yourself in a game for hours on end you can find long complex games. Whatever genre you enjoy reading – sci-fi, fantasy, romance, mystery, horror, literary fiction – you’ll find that in IF too.

Brian: What’s the writing, editing, and playtesting process like for your games?

Rebecca: The production process for Choice of Games is a cross between writing a novel and developing a videogame.

It takes about 12-18 months for a game to go from concept to release. We start with a detailed outline that covers both story and game mechanics: what stats the game will track, how the story proceeds differently depending on different player choices, what all the possible endings can be.

That double vision continues throughout the writing process: we constantly pay attention to both narrative and logistics. First, we have to make sure that each potential path through the story makes sense both logically and emotionally. Do the scenes show up in the right order? Does any important information get skipped if the player chooses Option X instead of Option Y? Does each plot progress in a way that makes sense? What is the logical end point of each potential path that the player can take through the story? Do all of those endings feel satisfying?

At the same time, we have to think about mechanics. A core aspect of Choice of Games’ design philosophy is that there are no “right” or “wrong” options. Rather, all options should be equally interesting, and even if the character fails to achieve their goal, the failure should be just as interesting as the success. So we have to make sure that no path through the story is easier or harder than the others, and that no option gives disproportionate benefits or penalties.

Each author has a different method for keeping track of all of the possibilities and contingencies. Some use spreadsheets to make sure that they’re keeping all of the stats balanced; some make flowcharts to track each potential path through the plot. Some make extensive outlines – Max Gladstone, author of Choice of the Deathless, is also a novelist, and he has a great essay about his outlining process for writing a ChoiceScript game and how it differs from and informs his writing process for linear novels.

Once the first draft of a game is done, we have at least a month of beta and continuity testing. We’ve got a crew of regular testers who have exceptional eyes for detail. Every game has dozens if not hundreds of choices, so every playthrough reveals a different combinations of scenes and choices. We have to make sure that every playthrough makes narrative sense. On top of that, we have to make sure that all the code works: not just that there are no bugs, but that all of the stat tests are calibrated properly so that the game isn’t too easy or too hard. We work really hard to make sure that the story flows properly and the game’s responses feel natural.

But sometimes bugs can creep in. For example, my own game, Psy High, had a lot of complicated teen-romance shenanigans, so the continuity was really difficult to iron out. Just one true/false flag getting set wrong in one place could result in confusion for the rest of the game, and hilariously sad error messages from users during beta testing: “I told Alison I loved her, but then on the way to the prom she said that we were just friends! What did I do wrong?”

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A decision you’ll need to make in Psy High

Brian: Where do you see text-based and interactive fiction games going in the next five years?

Rebecca: I think that the transmedia/augmented reality trend will continue to grow in popularity, as new types of technology get developed and incorporated into games, and as game creators find new ways to use existing technology to tell new kinds of stories. There will be more multiplayer and massively multiplayer IF games, both cooperative and competitive, that will likewise take advantage of new devices.

Relatedly, I think that the lines between game genres will blur even more. Some mainstream videogames will incorporate more aspects of text-based IF: they will strengthen their storylines, make their plots more choice-driven, and increase the amount of text and dialogue that the player sees. Conversely, IF will, thanks to the development of new tools, incorporate more non-text elements such as sound and video.

If there’s anything that the past few years have shown, it’s that people are hungry for games that have a strong story. I’m really looking forward to seeing what the next few years will bring to help them find those stories.

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Don’t Make A Mess of Things: How To Professionally Edit Your Game

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As game creators, we want as many people as possible to roll the dice and take a chance with our game. And as game players, we know that terrible feeling of sitting down with a rulebook and scrunching up our foreheads in frustration as the words on the page refuse to make sense.

So I sat down with Joshua Yearsley, an editor specializing in games and scientific literature, to discuss best practices for writing your rulebook – as well as finding and working with a professional editor to help make your game shine. Joshua’s roleplaying game credits include most of the Fate Worlds of Adventure line by Evil Hat Productions, as well as Vow of Honor and Hunt the Wicked by Sigil Stone Publishing. A couple board games he’s worked on are Lagoon: Land of the Druids by 3 Hares Games and Space Cadets: Away Missions by Stronghold Games. At Make Big Things, we also had the pleasure of working with Joshua on our game 14 Days.

Brian: Let’s start with the basics. How would you describe the role and importance of a game editor in making a polished version of a product that’s ready for sale?

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Joshua Yearsley

Joshua: Ever read a bad rulebook? That’s what happens without an editor.

To be a little less brash, what an editor offers is a fresh, professional set of eyes. If you’ve been designing a game for months or years, revising the text all the while, it’ll be really difficult for you to look at it through your players’ eyes, which makes it hard to write clear rules. This is what Stephen Pinker, author of The Sense of Style, calls “The Curse of Knowledge.”

Editors don’t just look for typos and grammar errors. We also make sure your rules text is as clear, concise, and unambiguous as possible. This has many benefits: it reduces your players’ frustration when learning and referencing rules, it makes sure your players are actually playing the game you intended, and it makes your game more accessible and more marketable to new players who might be new to the gaming world.

Even better, editing can save you money. Graphic design is expensive, often much more expensive than editing, and time spent on editing reduces time spent on graphic design. For especially large games, editing might even reduce your word count enough to reduce the number of pages you need to print, reducing your manufacturing costs.

Brian: What should someone look for when they want to find an editor for their game?

Joshua: First, look in their credits for the rulebooks they’ve edited and download them. If you like what you see, chances are you’ve found someone worth your while. This isn’t always reliable, because the editor doesn’t have absolute control of the end result, but it’s a start.

Once you’ve found some options, ask them what specific services they offer, such as structural editing, line editing, copy editing, and proofreading. If they’re cagey about any of it, they probably don’t know what they’re doing. A good editor should be able to explain those types of editing and how they do or don’t integrate them into their editing process.

Brian: What should independent game designers do to make working with their editor a positive experience?

Joshua: Get a good idea of what your editor is responsible for. If you want your editor to do proofreading, make sure they’ll do proofreading. If you want copy editing, make sure they’ll do copy editing. Editing is a broad profession that covers all kinds of services. There’s a great summary of the various types of editing here.

When you’re ready to start editing, make sure the rulebook is completely done before you hand it off to the editor. The more changes you have to make after the rulebook gets edited, the less useful your editor is going to be. Also, if you already have a graphic designer lined up, connect them with your editor so the editor can discuss how they can help make the designer’s job easier in their editing.

Brian: What are some key tips for writing good game rules?

Joshua: First, don’t be too specific. This may sound counterintuitive, but consider the following statement: “If no other players placed tokens this turn, leave your token in the same region, on the same town.” The explanation “in the same region, on the same town…” sounds exact, but it takes more effort to digest and, if you leave out any other specifics relevant to the token, might confuse your reader. Better would be to just state “…leave your token in its place.” or “…leave your token where it is.” Say exactly what you mean; no more, no less.

Second, use concrete language. If you’re introducing a part of the board, for example, talk about what it is physically. This is bad: Rivers are impassible. This is better: Rivers, the blue lines separating regions, are impassible. If it’s appropriate, supplement that text with an image nearby showing what you’re talking about.

A screen cap of edits Joshua made to our game 14 Days.
A screen cap of edits Joshua made to our game 14 Days.

Brian: What are some of the most common “big” mistakes you encounter?

Joshua: Bad rulebooks seem to be the result of many small mistakes rather than a few big ones. That’s why good rulebooks are so hard to make. That said, there are a few big problems to look out for.

A big rulebook needs a workable index. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. Many editors, but not all, will be able to make one.

Also, it’s really easy to overuse text styling such as italics and bolding. A bold term might draw your reader’s eye, but if you bold half of the things on the page, it turns into a liability. And yes, I’ve seen rulebooks that have half the page bolded.

Brian: Has the rise of Kickstarter-backed games impacted the game editing industry at all?

Joshua: Absolutely. In fact, at least in the board game world, it didn’t exist in any real sense before crowdfunding. You had the big, big publishers like Hasbro or Wizards of the Coast, who would have editors on staff, while small, independent publishers often didn’t have the pre-publishing resources to sink into hiring an editor. Now there’s some money to go around that smaller teams can use to make games with a lot of polish.

Brian: How does your experience being a game-player impact how you edit games?

Joshua: What an interesting question! I’m not sure that being a game-player changes how I edit games too much, but what does is my experience in teaching games to people and in reading lots and lots of rulebooks. Some of my editing habits are influenced by what I’ve seen to work in teaching games aloud: show what you’re talking about, explain early about how to win, use examples, be sparing in specificities at the beginning, and many other things. Many things, big and small.

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If you want to find out more about Joshua’s work, check out his website.

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Can we keep games apolitical? (Spoiler alert: no way.)

Can we keep games apolitical? (Spoiler alert: no way.)

Screenshot from Can We Keep Politics Out of Gaming? of a war-based video game

No matter what anyone tells you, games are never really apolitical. Because, well, they’re not created or played in a vacuum, isolated from everything and everyone else. We live in a highly political world. By that, I don’t mean Democrats vs. Republicans. I mean a world where our actions and words and thoughts are shaped by social and economic factors, many of them explicit and obvious – but many more of them implicit and subconscious. And if you think these things don’t affect you when you’re consuming or making a game… well, it’s likely that you’re one of the people benefiting from said social and economic factors.

Still other times, games even have meanings you weren’t even aware of. Like, for example, did you know that Sonic the Hedgehog originally was meant to have an environmental message?

To find out more, watch this great video that asks “Can we keep politics out of gaming?”

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