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Iterative Game Design, Hex Songs, Freelancer Pay, RPG Costs, and Development Cycles

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Game design is iterative. This is a thing I constantly have to remind myself. At least, that is, when I want to make good games.

Way back when, I used to freelance for a number of RPG companies. I’m sure if you’re reading this, you’re familiar with at least one of those things I’ve done. One of the problems I had with that style of game design is that it doesn’t generally allow for iterative design. Because of tight schedules and deadlines, it’s almost impossible to iterate your work in any meaningful way. Then there’s the issue of pay. If you’re making, say, $3,000 for a chunk of work at $0.03 per word, you really, REALLY don’t want to go back and rewrite that material. Those 100,000 words at $0.03 cents per word start to look like 200,000 words at $0.015 cents per word, and that’s just plain insult to injury.

This means that by and large, your goal is to skew to the original design as closely as possible. Everything you restructure is a thing you have to rewrite, and it’s time you could be taking making another project.

Add to this the fact that when you’re designing and writing on a work-for-hire contract, even if you reiterate your design and rewrite it into the best damned game you can, what you ultimately get out of it is a game that sells better for the person who owns the IP. They make a lot more money because of it, and you… got stuck writing all those words for a cent and a half or whatever.

Game Costs

There’s been this really interesting conversation going around in RPG spaces on Twitter these past few days. This all got sparked when Monte Cook Games released their game Invisible Sun as a PDF. I don’t want to rehash that debate, but it centers on their releasing the PDF for $99. The tl;dr is that it’s a massive PDF with something like 1,000 pages of content, and on the other side there are some arguments that rising costs locks out a significant portion of the market, and there have been some counterarguments that were, frankly, pretty fucking classist. I’m of a mind that Monte Cook Games can do whatever they want, and maybe if you think they’re making a game that’s not for you, for whatever reason, then it’s probably not for you.

We’ve been discussing the cost of the upcoming #iHunt game. We’re looking at charging significantly more than we’re used to charging for our games. There are a lot of reasons for it. I lay out some of the direct numerical arguments in the following Twitter thread.

Part that I’m not really talking about here is that I need to justify taking the time to make a good game. #iHunt is somewhere around 95% written. But it’s not the game I think it should be. It’s not a game I’m as proud of as I should be. In a few ways, I made lazy choices. I made choices because That’s How Games Do It. That’s not a good excuse. So I’m doing a fairly significant redesign and rewrite.

This extends to more than the game. I’ve also reworked almost the entire book layout, because I wanted the presentation to truly be special. I talked about that yesterday.

If I’m only making $3-10 per copy of the game, I cannot justify that rewrite. I would be doing the proverbial “100,000 words for $0.015 per word” I mention above.

Hex Songs

A lot of times, the need for design reiteration doesn’t really “click” with me on a larger level by itself. There’s usually some very tiny catalyst that often seems strange and even funny when viewed outside the greater context of the game.

I was writing Assets. Assets are basically individual traits that “break the rules” and do interesting little things for the character who takes them. At least, that was the intention.

In the original design, I was using a dice pool system in the vein of Shadowrun, World of Darkness, and similar games. You build a dice pool, you roll, you look for dice that hit a certain target, and you compare it to a needed quantity of those dice. A lot of times, these systems fall apart as they grow, because binary success is either all but guaranteed, or you have to micromanage all these bonuses, penalties, limitations, et cetera. To me, this looks like “level scaling,” where weak design has to fall back on negating character advancement in order to homogenize the play experience.

Look at games like Skyrim, for example. You become the great chosen one who topples dragons and saves the universe. However, city guards scale in level with your character, so your amazing champion of the universe who has weapons and armor crafted on the steepes of heaven and who can sunder the planes of existence with her voice… gets beaten up by random townsfolk. That’s shitty fucking design.

So I’m writing Assets. Basically, Assets mostly manipulate the way the dice interact. In a way, this is an extension of work I did restructuring the Merit system in Chronicles of Darkness, and some of the ideas I came up with to rebuild the Backgrounds and Merits and Flaws systems for Vampire: The Masquerade. This is just a refinement of a time-honored tradition that goes back to games like GURPS.

I’m writing, and I’m watching one of my favorite movies in the background, Baby Driver. I like to watch stylish movies when I’m writing because it helps to inform the style in what I’m doing. The movie’s full of amazing, quotable, memorable bits. But this scene stood out to me.

There’s no spoilers if you haven’t seen the film. But you should really watch the movie if you haven’t. The point is, there’s this dichotomy established in the script, where there’s a “Killer Track” and a “Hex Song.” Essentially, songs that can empower you and doom you.

FUUUUUCK that’s a wonderful piece of fiction that carries through centuries of storytelling but gives it a modern edge. Since #iHunt is really going for “action horror romance TV like you might see on the CW but with actual queer people not just bullshit queerbaiting,” this dichotomy of Killer Track/Hex Song screamed Asset to me.

So I started writing it.

I wrote four different versions of that Asset. I realized that none of them did what I want. Most just changed the dice pool sizes or interactions in different conditions. And it bored me to shit. While it’s a great idea in Baby Driver, nothing I could do by adding +3 dice or making the player take -5 to this actually helped evoke that sense.

I hit the topmost limit of the system. And… I hated it. I realized the game wasn’t doing what I needed it to do. It didn’t speak with style. Remember how I said only bad games have “crunch” and “fluff?” When I was writing that, I was really saying that “fluff” is a bullshit concept, and every word needs to speak to what the game is. However, the reverse is true. Every game mechanic needs to speak to what the game is. And if it doesn’t, it’s a bad game. I was writing a bad game.

I have built and begun doing internal testing on the new system. I’m not ready to start talking about it at length. But here’s the first playtest session, when I rolled literally the worst possible thing allowed in the system.

Needless to say, reiteration is not only good, but essential for good game design.