Archives for the month of: February, 2011

In just a couple of days, the Metagame launches at the Game Developers Conference.

In an earlier post, I wrote about the history of the Metagame. But I wanted to write here a bit about the current design. The Metagame raises a number of issues about large-scale real-world game design and social game mechanics.

In The Metagame, players are given a handful of cards to start. Some are game cards – they look like videogame trading cards and feature a single game – and others are comparison cards, with statements like “Which game is sexier” or “Which game tells a better story?” You challenge another player with two cards – a game card and a comparison card, such as “Asteroids” and “Which game is more visually beautiful?” Then the other player responds with a game card… maybe… “Red Dead Redemption.” Then you two each have two minutes to argue your side. Any bystanders vote on a winner, who gets to take a card from the loser. There’s an excellent video explaining the game rules at the project website.

For about 15 years or more, I have been creating large-scale social games for conferences, from early experiments with Frank Lantz (games like Quorum, Link, and Manifesto) to Gamelab’s many GDC games. I have learned a number of crucial design lessons from these dozens of real-world massively multiplayer games. These principles all seem very obvious in isolation, but getting them all to work together elegantly in a design can be a hell of a challenge.

Simplicity is Key. Above all else, your game needs to be simple to play. Attendees at conferences are generally busy and distracted, and they don’t have time to sit down and study complex rules. This is even true of players at conferences made for playing games, like Come Out and Play. You can’t rely on clever rules to give the experience complexity – you have to rely on the space, your players, or some other intrinsic element of the context. The Metagame is one of the simplest designs I have worked on, and we are hoping that it is simple enough for players to learn just by watching others play.

Get the word out. What if you designed a great game and no one showed up to play? You have to make sure that people know about your game in advance, and that you have strategies for acquiring players during the event where your game is taking place. In the case of the Metagame, we’re using social media to spread the word. We also partnered with the IGDA and we’re using their high-visibility booth as our headquarters. We’re giving out starter decks in advance wherever we can (including to all of the hard-working Conference Associates). Perhaps most importantly, we have integrated virality into the game design: you get a bonus card every time you recruit a new player.

Logistics are a bitch. The physical elements of your game, from the materials that you are asking players to cart around to the locations where you are asking them to show up, can make or break a design. Just remember that no one is going to obsessively check an obscure website just to keep track of their team’s score relative to the others. If you need your players to know about the overall game state, for example, make it a spectacle – a huge screen or chart – that can act as an advertisement to potential new players. And keep the required physical materials to a minimum. In the Metagame, we have put the rules on a single card that comes with the starter deck.

Design for an ecosystem. In a given social context, half of your players will be super-casual, playing hardly at all. About 5-10 percent will be hardcore “generals,” and the rest fall somewhere in-between. You need to make sure that your game is fun even if someone plays just a little bit, but that you also have ways to reward players that get highly involved. Although The Metagame may seem to provide only casual play, in testing we found that the debating mechanic can get quite hardcore. The Metagame also supports dedicated players because you can play and recruit as much as you want. The tournament at the end is only open to players who have collected special starred cards over the course of the conference and is meant to reward those players who have played many successful games.

Make it catchy. Lastly, your game needs to be easily understandable as a concept, so that it seems interesting from the outside and hooks your players into staying and going deeper. What is considered catchy varies from context to context. In the case of the Metagame, we are hoping that the idea of a game about arguing about videogames will be highly appealing to our audience of game developers.

Those are the basics! Hope to see you in San Francisco next week… playing the Metagame!

On Feb 24, I will be presenting a screening of PLAY, the short film I created with director David Kaplan at the NYU Game Center. I’ll be there to chat about the film, and so will David – unless his work directing an episode of the Current TV series Bar Karma interferes. (That’s the show Will Wright executive produced, where the audience helps write the plot.)

PLAY is set in a future where the lines between videogames and reality have become blurred, and it follows a protagonist from game to game to game, which exist inside each other like nested Russian dolls. The film premiered in 2010, and it has screened at a number of festivals, including the Puchon International Film Festival, where it won Best Short.

Working on PLAY – a bona fide film – taught me a lot about games and film, and all of the problems games are having trying to replicate the pleasures of cinema. It was incredibly instructive to observe the process of filmmaking firsthand, which is radically different from that of game development. And the independent film world – often much envied by game indies – has not at all been what I was expecting.

There’s going to be a lot to talk about with PLAY. Information about the screening is here on the Game Center website. Hope to see you there!

Among my personal projects at the moment is Armada d6, a board game I am working on with John Sharp. it’s a turn-based strategy game for two to four players. The project has a somewhat bizarre history (more on that below). I’m leading the game design, and John is doing all of the graphics. I can’t have an unbiased opinion about the project, but my playtesters love it. I’ve never before had a boardgame design that people request I bring to parties.

On its surface, Armada d6 is about battling spaceships. Dice are used to represent game units, with the face-up number on a die representing both the movement number of unit and its combat power (where lower numbers are more powerful). A six is a speedy but weak Scout – a two is a slow but powerful Flagship. Each kind of ship also has its own unique power. You win by placing colonists on planets, which you can do when you have ships adjacent to the planet that add up to the right number. There’s more to it than that – including an advanced game where you customize your stats, special powers for your fleet, and design your own maps, but those are the basics.

The core rules are simple, but the heterogeneity of the units and powers adds up to a game where you are constantly creating little puzzle-like engines. The possibility space is wide and games can play out very differently. Here’s an image from a recent playtest at the NYC Boardgame Designer’s group that Josh DeBonis organizes:

Armada d6 is a game with a strange history. About twenty years ago, I found some papers – incomplete fragments of a republished game design – in a bookstore in Bloomington, Indiana. The game they described, “Armada Dei Gratia VI,” had been revived in the 1930s from an earlier game. The whole thing was genuinely strange – it felt like a combination of religious ritual and strategic training exercise.

I recently rediscovered those papers, and they inspired my “reconstructed” design for Armada d6. The game design as I found it was woefully incomplete, so my design process has been part detective-anthropologist and part whole cloth invention. The result is a game that I would like to get published. I plan to start working my connections in the paper game industry after a little more testing and balancing.

If you happen to be at Jeff Ward’s pre-GDC boardgame night, John and I will be bringing a copy of the game there to play. In the meantime, I’ll post update about the progress of the game to my blog.

In a little over a week at the GDC, The Metagame will launch – a massively multiplayer social game where players argue and debate about games.

The Metagame at GDC is a creation of Local No.12, a game design collective that includes Mike Edwards, Colleen Macklin, John Sharp, and myself. Our last conference game was BackChatter, a Twitter-based game that ran at several conferences before we open-sourced it at GDC last year.

However, The Metagame has a strange and convoluted history. It originally began as a project for Wired Magazine – the 2006 “games issue” that Will Wright guest edited several years ago. I was asked to contribute something, and my suggestion was to create a playable game for the magazine – a fold-out boardgame about videogames. I brought Frank Lantz into the project, and the two of us created The Metagame as a paper boardgame experience. Somewhat inspired by the Glass Bead Game from Herman Hesse’s Magister Ludi, players navigated a visual web of videogames, strategically modifying modular statements like “Asteroids is more visually beautiful than Gran Turismo” to make them true.  After we completed the game, the magazine unfortunately decided to drop it from the issue (even though they did include a visual timeline that closely resembled a boardgame).

We loved our game, and convinced GDC to let us run a session the following year where two teams of players competed head to head to argue and debate game aesthetics. Programmer and designer Veronique Brossier created a Flash tool for the event, and here’s a great writeup about the session that Scott John Segal did for Joystiq.  In case you’re curious, the winning team was the unlikely menage-a-tois of Jonathan Blow, Warren Spector, and Tracy Fullerton, beating out Jesper Juul, Clint Hocking, and Marc LeBlanc.

Game Journalist Stephen Totillo attended the GDC session and liked it so much that he put it on MTV. That fall he helped arrange a video gameshow version of the Metagame experience. Frank and I hosted the shoot at the offices of my company Gamelab, and contestants included game journalists N’Gai Croal and Heather Chaplin. The entire event is still viewable at

Which brings us to the present. Trying to come up with a social game for GDC 2011, Local No. 12 decided to recycle the core gameplay of the Metagame and turn it into a massively multiplayer card game. The gameplay is still about comparing two games with a comparison statement (“Which game is deeper,” “Which game tells a better story,” etc.) – but this time you do so with a personal collection of cards that can grow and change over time. We tested it at a few gatherings, including a large-scale playtest at Indiecade, and we’re looking forward to seeing how the game plays at GDC.

Boardgame to conference session to game show to CCG: The Metagame is a great example of how the logic of game rules can be ported and transported from context to context, changing each time, but somehow also remaining the same. Beyond the name of a game (“The Metagame”) and the identity that accrues around its surface materials, what is it that lets us say these clearly disparate games are all versions of the same thing – if indeed they are? Is it something about the rules and logic? The communities of players? A history within reported media? Or perhaps it is something more ineffable.

In a short couple of weeks, the Game Developers Conference will be upon us – the single largest annual gathering of the people that create videogames. I am expecting the usual mix of heady game design theory, crass commercial promotion, and endless boozy socializing with my favorite people that I only see at game conferences and events. GDCalways serves to remind me what I hate and love about working in the game industry.

I’m serving up a number of panels and talks this year, including the following:

The Game Design Challenge, my annual attempt to give three talented game designers a hairy design problem to solve. This year John Romero, Jason Rohrer, and Jenova Chen (last year’s winner) all have to create a game that is also – in some way – a religion. The audience votes on the winner. More details about Game Design Challenge: Bigger Than Jesus.

The Rant Panel, another annual tradition where game pundit Jason Della Roca and myself corral a half dozen outspoken hotheads and let them rant about whatever they want. This year, all of them are social network game developers, including Ian Bogost, Brian Reynolds, Steve Meretzky, Trip Hawkins, Brenda Braithwait, and Scott John Segal, so prepare to hear them defend and destroy their chosen corner of the game industry. More details about No F*&@ing Respect: Social Game Developers Rant Back.

A lecture called The Fantasy of Labor I am giving with Naomi Clark as part of the Social Games Summit. This talk grew out of a series of game design workshops Naomi and I put together last spring, and it investigates the relationships between desire and game design, both in the micro-context of an individual game, as well as the macro-context of cultural narratives that players tell themselves about games they play. Our position is that most Facebook games operate from an impoverished model of human desire. More details here.

I’m also on a panel that audio maestro and game educator Michael Sweet put together for the Academic Game Summit about collaborations across the academy and industry. Look for me giving a cameo during the Microtalks session. And – of course – Local No.12 is doing another large-scale social game: the Metagame. I’ll be putting up a separate post about that soon, but in the meantime, you can check out the game site here.

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