The Mindstorm Weekly, Jan 3–9, 2021

A roundup of the things I was checking out this week.

Ship Game

My (Untested) Theory of Nautical Campaigns by Dwiz

Ah, the untenable ship game. I feel like we’ve all tried it. I’ve tried it, numerous times. My home group is constantly trying it. Over and over. It’s tough to pull off. I’m eager and ready to hear what Dwiz has to say about it.

He starts by running through the problems: lack of good sailing rules, lack of good ways to make a hexcrawl seem fun, and if you focus on the islands, the lack of it even feeling like a ship game.

The solutions Dwiz lists are all keyed off of balance: no one part of the game should take up a huge part. So, equal parts sailing, ship-vs-ship, island crawling, social challenges, domain-level stuff, and fun piratey miscellany. He goes into a lot more details about these.

Overall, it’s a solid post that provides the foundation of how one should look at seafaring ship games. When I inadvertently run the next one, I’m going to start here.

Practical Creativity

Practical Creativity GDC talk by Raph Koster

This talk delves into the concept of innovation in games. Right off the bat, he lays out various ways to bring something fresh

  • Entirely new games.
  • New mechanics in games.
  • New themes and stories.

Raph goes on to describe what creativity is: collisions of elements not typically associated together, crossing of contexts, and making the familiar unfamiliar. It’s almost never “the creation of something truly new.”

Atomize how you look at games:

  • Look for the core small bits. (Games are made of smaller games.)
  • Break down and compartmentalize the game. (Treat each input as a game. Each subsystem as a game. Once you think modularly, you can replace modules at will.)
  • Build your mechanics library. (Go back to simple games.)
  • Distance yourself from the core problem. (Find ways to reframe your simulation problem in fresh language.)

Learn as many core mechanics as you can, because they’re the tools of your workbench.

Creativity is about moving known bricks around and connecting them in unexpected ways. (Games are made of games, even a tiny thing is a possible brick.)

Another way to boost creativity is to force constraints. If you give yourself an impossible limit, you’ll begin creating interesting solutions.

The main ways that Raph speaks about to generate creativity are:

  • Merge a mechanic.
  • Add or remove a statistic.
  • Change a dimension.
  • Force constraints.
  • Add a verb or goal.
  • Simulate using an oddity. (Select a non-optimal simulation method and see what emerges.)
  • Transplant skins. (Move things out of their context. Select a new metaphor for what the game is.)

Speaking more about the art side, and specifically theme:

It’s bad to ask “What is the game about?”

Better questions are:

  1. What is the dressing about?
  2. How does the player do that?
  3. What is the mechanic about?
  4. And how does the player do that?

To approach this from the top down method:

  • Ask yourself: what is the feeling I want to capture?
  • Break down the verbs and scenarios.
  • Identify mechanics that have analogous actions.
  • The risk, however, is that you then fill in with generic mechanics.

To do it from the bottom up:

  • You start with an interesting mechanic. Now what?
  • Systems fit inside one another, fractally, like concentric rings.
    • What system is this merely a component in?
  • Move back and forth between the system and theme.
    • Have a firm idea of what it’s about at each end.
    • Discard what doesn’t work as you go.

The really interesting innovations come from working on problems from both the top down and the bottom up.

And now, we move on to life habits:

Creativity, since it’s a skill, needs to become a habit. Setting aside the time and making it not just a routine, but a ritual.

  • A song a day.
  • A game a week.
  • A thousand words a day.

Take notes! By hand, using pen and paper or a tablet and stylus.

Talking about taking risks:

  • Fear of failure is a major creativity killer.
    • Assume that most creative attempts will FAIL. This is the norm.
    • Every new idea that works is a victory.
  • Stay away from people who are overly negative about failures.
  • Brainstorming without criticism generates less idea than allowing ideas to be criticized during the session.

The summary slide is as follows:

  • Be a stranger to the familiar.
  • Learn to atomize and abstract.
  • Build a diverse pattern library.
  • Move patterns between contexts.
  • Give yourself constraints.
  • Change dimensions, topologies, and inputs.
  • Pursue unconventional metaphors.
  • Address deeper meaning.
  • Always be working.
  • Always be failing.

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