my friend james invited me to speak in front of his class at san jose state university – a class that he’s hoping to expand into a full program eventually. standing in front of this room of bright young authors / the next generation of game creators, i told them what i wanted to see in the next generation of bright young digital games. i think i delivered my speech a little hurridly and tiredly and disorganizedly, but here are the original notes i wrote:
When I was at the Guildhall – which is a much different school than this, thank god – Sandy Peterson came into our class one day to talk about board games. (He made the second and third episodes of DOOM.) I’m embarrassed to admit that today, I’m also going to be talking about board games.
In board games players, rather than the machine, keep the rules, so multiple human players rather than one person playing with the machine has become the paradigm, the opposite of videogames. And because of that, board games have gotten very very good at setting up really complex dynamics between players.
This game is called Junta! Or rather, it’s Junta: Viva El Presidente, a modification of a game from the seventies that originally had a lot of really tedious and slow wargame army maneuvering. In this game, one of the players is EL PRESIDENTE of a banana republic. That’s what the glasses are for: they actually come with the game. El Presidente gets to wear them, to help her get IN CHARACTER. The people in this picture are playing the game wrong.
El Presidente gets first pick of all the good stuff in the game. Every round, all of the lesser players get to draw one card. El Presidente gets seven. There is a strong incentive to be El Presidente. If anyone kills El Presidente in a fight, they become the new El Presidente. So there’s a strong incentive to kill El Presidente.
Now, El Presidente has a hard time defending herself, because the Imperial Guard are much weaker than the private militias the other players own. But El Presidente has INFLUENCE. Every round, El Presidente gets to offer every player a BRIBE from the seven cards she picked up. Each player only knows what her own bribe is, not what anyone else’s is. And if El Presidente doesn’t survive the round, the bribes go away. So when time comes to pick who our private militias are attacking this round – players do this in secret – some players may have a very strong incentive to protect El Presidente from other players.
When you’re El Presidente, every player is out to kill you. But every player can also be swung to help defend you. You want to do this, however, without making any one player powerful enough to dethrone you or rich enough to win before you can – victory goes to the player with the biggest estate. So there’s this really neat dynamic between the players where one player – the one with the glasses – can be both an inviting target and a source of power and privilege.
I’m talking about complex dynamics in board games because I want you to think about why player dynamics in videogames are often so simple. In many videogames, ones that actually allow multiple human players, the relationships between these players are dead simple. Kill all other players. Kill all enemies – easier with more players because you have more firepower, right?
Imagine a game where all the players are competing for valuables, but they have to rely on one another to reach them. Or imagine a game where the players are working together, but at the same time making it harder for each other. This game used to be called Pongvaders – before Atari sent us a cease-and-desist. Both players are trying to protect their home planets by bouncing the invaders’ bullets back at them. The more bullets players serve back, however, the more things the other player is going to have to manage, and bullets that are bounced a couple of times become fireballs that are more damaging to a player’s planet if she allows them to pass. The power-ups in the game make the player who collects them more powerful by introducing stuff that the other player has to deal with.
Currently Jonathan Beilin – one of the authors of Pongvaders – and I are working on a new iPad game about intergalactic cold war. Both players are spies who’ve infiltrated the orbiting laser death satellite, and each wants to enter the firing code that obliterates the other player’s planet. But the players share controls, and potentially characters in their firing codes – only a limited number of characters can be entered per round, and it can be advantageous to let an opponent tag a few buttons that are beneficial to both of you – as long as she doesn’t get to enter her complete code!
It’s partially based on this card game called Bouton Rouge by Joachim Despland and friends. In this three-player game, players play cards face-down representing nukes, defenses, spies. At any time, any player can hit the red button in the middle of the table to trigger NUCLEAR WAR. Then the players flip over their cards and start firing them at one another. It’s an interesting game because the hidden information means it’s always possible that pressing the red button will lead to your destruction. Since it’s a three-player game, you usually want to be the player who’s set the other two against each other and receives as little fire as possible.
It’s also based on this pattern recognition game from 1970 called Scan.
So I want you all to consider what you can do to make the dynamics between players in your games more complicated, less straightforward. Force players into uneasy truces. Make friends hurt each other.
i also asked them not to shirk their social responsibility as artists and to shy away from making games that are political and pointed. but i wrote my speech in a hurry right before i headed to the train station, so that part didn’t get written down. i showed kettle and my new game, SAVAGERY. there was a good question and answer session, where the subject of digital censorship was brought up. i talked about iphone story and how we’re going to have to come up with new solutions to bypass corporate censorship, like bittorrent. the class was recorded, and i’ll post the link when it’s available, because the questions were good.