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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

[AFTHOTWTTGS] Closure in Game Development

A couple of weeks ago, I was burbling on about an alternative socio-economic model for how roleplaying games are produced and sold. Now, to look at how we can move toward this alternative model by playing with the idea of ‘closure’...

The classic model of making and selling games for a living is one of open streams of income – a game is made, and as sales flag, a new product is released for it in order to make more sales and continue paying the wages, bills, rents and so on and so forth.  Now imagine a game which exists, from the developer’s point of view, as a closed stream of income; it is produced, it sells out, pays the bills for a month or two, and then it’s done.  The developer moves on to paying their bills with something else, whether it be making another game or another job entirely.  Infinite extension through deliberate misdesign is no longer necessary because the developer’s livelihood is being assured by other means.  The system, if reasonably solid, can be preserved as a ‘dead’ system, immune to being buggered about with in the cause of generating further products and further sales.

Alternatively, the game can be an intermittent stream of income, if a different kind of game design emerges.  Game development is usually seen as a closed system – authorship, playtesting, release, done.  One of my very favourite miniature games had a public field test of its second edition, based on the idea that a player base will a) play many, many more games than the design team ever could and b) having not written the rules, will not ‘know what they mean’. This rather neatly dodges the classic self-proofreader’s problem: you read what you think you wrote and not what’s actually there. A public test means that errors, typos, confusions and poor structure can be pinpointed by people who aren't as likely to skim over them because they know that bit already.  It works very nicely for the 'dead game' market too, provided some sort of centralising force emerges to direct the house-ruling and re-drafting process; exactly like what's happened with Games Workshop's defunct Specialist Games range, and exactly like what hasn't happened with the OSR - of which more later.

The basic process I'd like to see in games-making goes something like this.

  1. Alpha testing by a limited number of playtesters, including a control group run by the developers, but also other groups with different styles and priorities, perhaps each including a developer (at this stage, testing is about whether the core principles and mechanics are functional, rather than catching oversights and errors, so the developer’s foreknowledge of how it’s supposed to work is a benefit rather than an adversary in the making).  
  2. Beta testing by anyone and everyone, public and free, with feedback on rules language, clarity, evidence of publicly stated core principles in the system as it’s read and played out-of-house.  
  3. Eventually, the formation of a rulebook – downloadable and printable on demand. We don't build up a stock of the damn things that we have to shift; we sell the damn things when someone wants to buy them, and we accept that a given gaming group might well only buy the damn things once between the four of them.

Of course, it has to stay small.  The more time and money you spend on the product, the more people you involve, the more costs you have to pay, the more hours of labour for which you need to be adequately recompensed (because it is important that you keep paying the bills while you’re working on this stuff) – the more reasons there are to release a product because you need the money, rather than because the game needs the addition.

The goal is to balance your time so that game development is not the One Thing you do for a living, which – in theory – means that more of your decisions can be based on good design practice, and you’re less worried about supporting yourself with a viable game product, because such is not your only means of support.

Essentially, you’re looking at small groups producing games as one of multiple streams of income, rather than large ones producing them as the sole stream.  Sort of how Kickstarter and the OSR have shifted the RPG world away from the traditional publishing model... and we'll talk about a few effects that the emergence of fan development and crowdfunding have had in... the future.

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