DSU: The Recap

Posted by on Nov 20, 2008 in Conventions, Design | 18 Comments

As I mentioned in an earlier post, at the end of the week before last I drove across the boring part of Minnesota to visit Dakota State University in Madison, Wisconsin, to attend Nanocon and speak to the students of their game design program—and other interested students—about game design.

The game design program at DSU is interesting. It’s very new, and is growing up out of their computer science and graphic design departments, with faculty coming from both areas (as well as one lone mathematician, Glenn Berman, who’s a long-time gamer, the campus game club’s faculty advisor, and the power behind the Nanocon throne).

The game design curriculum at DSU is relatively technical, given its roots. That gave me a great opportunity to touch on subjects outside the norm for them. I was worried that my largely non-technical background might make what I had to say less interesting to that mix of students and faculty, but their game club is very active in card, board, and tabletop roleplaying, and there were lots of fans of Magic, Diplomacy, and D&D in the audience. (When I mentioned Diplomacy, it triggered a short round of good-natured shouting across the auditorium among two pods of people who’re apparently involved in an ongoing play-by-email game.) To make my presentation as useful as possible, I tried to highlight the broad applicability of tabletop game design strategies to computer games, and it seemed to go over well.

I had been asked to talk a fair bit about process, which I did, but the portion of my presentation that garnered the most active audience participation was my assertion about the importance of determining, and knowing, what the core one minute of gameplay is for any game project you work on.

To introduce the subject, I proposed these “core one minute” examples:

  • In D&D, the core one minute is to kill a monster.
  • In Diplomacy, the core one minute is to convince another player to help you win.
  • In Chess, the core one minute is to see into the future.

A member of the audience asked about Rock Band; we eventually decided that to rock out on a given verse or chorus was its core one minute of gameplay. There was some concern that the one-minute duration was too slavishly adhered to in that proposal—isn’t “to rock out to a whole song” a more obvious gameplay unit, there?—but I maintain that apparently longer building blocks are almost always composed of the repetition of shorter activities.

There was also discussion about whether the variety of different activities in, say, World of Warcraft constituted different games, and so different core minutes. Harvesting resources is different from killing monsters is different from traveling, and so on. I found it difficult to speak directly to that question due to my lack of personal experience doing the WoW thing, but I think that the same answer I gave to the question of other activities in D&D, and in certain resource management games, speaks to the same issue. Even if the gameplay cycle of D&D goes “kick door, kill monster, steal treasure, level up,” I think that the critical functions of kick, steal, and level always point back to kill as the main thing that’s fun about playing D&D.

(Clear credit: Will contributed the “core one minute” Thing in Things We Think About Games. I think I was first exposed to the concept by John Tynes, back in the day.)

We more or less ran out of time after the extended interest in the core-one-minute paradigm, but I dutifully sped through a short bit about the critical nature of stories in not only making games interesting, but in understanding how humans understand their very existence, and I recommended that they all read The War of Art, so that they will not stop working on their dream projects midway through for no good reason, but you knew I’d do that, because as habitual readers of Gameplaywright, you’re already aware that it’s a book about which I will not shut up.

To wrap this up, I thought I’d put up some of my thoughts about the questions that Paul, John, and Brad boldly threw out in response to my call for process questions.

How do you deal with the inevitable moment when you realize your brilliant idea/theme/mechanic that you labored over just got tossed out the window because it’s too expensive/you didn’t explain it right/the world hates you?

If my cherished what-have-you gets thrown out because I didn’t explain it right, I sometimes leap back into the breach with a better explanation. There’s no sense letting a good idea die because the decider—whoever it is—failed to grasp it.

In other cases (too expensive, world hates you, decider is batshit crazy), if the idea’s really good, I hold on to it. There are always other projects. The danger of that, though, is that you spend the rest of your creative life trying to shoehorn beloved-but-old ideas into every new project that comes along. Sometimes perspective confirms the correctness of having tossed the idea.

Which produces the better game: the drive and vision of an individual, or the collaboration of many?

Collaboration. No one’s smart enough to design a standout game in a vacuum.

If a driven visionary can be suitably humble so as to accept the input of collaborators, and to seriously consider the lessons of his playtesting (and the suggestions of his playtesters), a combination approach—that is, the vision of one implemented by a team of collaborators—can yield really fine results.

But I don’t think we see the singular vision of, say, a visionary novelist reflected in the field of game design. Also, the auteur theory in film is bullshit, but that’s an argument for another day.

How does an approaching deadline affect the end product that finally goes out the door?

In my experience, it usually cuts the playtesting cycle short. This is sometimes not a problem at all, sometimes a trivial problem (leading only to, say, card interactions that could have been streamlined or better explained), and sometimes results in the entire project’s critical failure. Spammers is a fine example of the latter. I told a lengthy cautionary tale at DSU about Spammers, on the subject of making sure to also playtest the changes you make to your design based on earlier playtesting.

That said, you can’t playtest forever. A product succeeds or fails in the real world, not on the playtesting table. Also, a creative work is always abandoned rather than finished.

How much time and effort do game designers spend pitching and/or defending their ideas to management?

Not all that much time. Moments of pitching and defending are critical points in a product’s design-cycle, but the amount of time spent doing those activities is dwarfed by the amount of time it takes to do the actual design, writing, testing, re-design, and so forth.


  1. Ben
    November 25, 2008

    What would you say the core 1 minute is for _Ars Magica_? To pursue your goals? That seems far too general…but I can’t say that “increase your mage’s power” is appropriate– not everyone chases that, and it’s only part of the system…

    I’m curious what you think.



  2. Jeff Tidball
    November 25, 2008

    I think that the core one minute of Ars Magica is something like, “To command the awesome powers of magic.”

    I always sold ArM as the game where you get to play a wizard done right, which points to that as a probable core one minute. I’d argue further that most of the covenant-based resource management, and even troupe-style roleplaying, feeds back into the ability of the wizards to command the awesome power of magic, which ArM supposes it’s impossible for wizards to do without some serious infrastructure backing them up.

  3. Will Hindmarch
    December 2, 2008

    The trouble is that core one-minute of play works for a video game but not quite for a table-top game. Video games just play faster. The core segment or kernel of play in a traditional RPG takes more than a minute — how often do you really slay a monster and take its stuff in one minute in D&D, after all?

    Also, RPGs can have a couple of different kernels running at once. For some people, the choices you make when leveling up are more “core” than the tactics during monster-fighting. Is that a viable way to define the core moment of play? I’m not sure, but it’s worth arguing, I think.

    In Ars Magica, at least one kernel of gameplay is this: build a spell and cast it. Certainly I’ve played games of ArM in which everything boiled down to peculiar opportunities to devise improvised spells and see if they worked, over and over again.

    Ars Magica is a great subject for stress-testing the theory, though.

  4. Jeff Tidball
    December 3, 2008

    I definitely agree that the period between gratification is longer for a tabletop game than for a video game, but I think a designer should be careful about accepting this as an unavoidable factor of the form. “Twenty minutes of fun packed into four hours” is the thing to avoid. I think too many games fail to figure out what their kernel is, or fail to figure out how to iterate their kernel as often as possible during gameplay.

    On the other hand, I believe wholeheartedly in the power of preparation and aftermath to intensify a moment of fun. Looking forward to a moment of tension before it happens, and then looking back on it afterward, can make the fun of the moment longer than the moment itself. Also true in video games, although few do it well.

    Also, I think that “to build a spell and cast it” is part of the umbrella “to command the awesome powers of magic.”

  5. Will Hindmarch
    December 3, 2008

    A kernel of gameplay should be an immediately demonstrable act, I say. How do you demonstrate “to command the awesome powers of magic,” I have to ask? How do you command the awesome powers of magic again and again and link those actions into a chain that becomes gameplay?

    I think the ability to command the awesome powers of magic is the appeal of Ars Magica, but it’s not exactly the kernel. It’s not explicit enough; it’s too broad. It seems to me to be analogous to a D&D kernel of “to adventure in perilous locales” or something.

    I’m also not advocating for the unnecessary lengthening of kernels for whatever reason — it’s just plumb faster to resolve four sword swings and damage in an MMO than in an RPG is all. But the gain-a-level cycle is another RPG kernel, for sure, and it plays out over weeks or months.

    There’s more to be said here, but I can’t say it now ’cause I’m playing LOTRO.

  6. Jeff Tidball
    December 3, 2008

    Yeah, I think we need a vocabulary that distinguishes between the specific activity that you or your character are doing versus the way that that (or those) activities are understood in terms of the wash-and-repeat attraction of the game.

    I think that “to kill the monster” and “to command the awesome powers of magic” are about on par, though; moreso than “to adventure in perilous locales” and “to command the awesome powers of magic.” But the “powers of magic” thing is, admittedly, much more like something a designer should have in mind as the player’s value proposition when playing than it is like something he should have in mind when inventing a list of spells.

    When I took a directing class, the veteran actor who taught the class kept saying, “But I don’t know where to put my hands!” when we would propose too lofty an intention for a given role in a given scene, or even for a given line of dialog. (“He’s trying to make up for lost time!” we’d say. “He’s trying to show his father that he’s good enough to make it in life!” What she was looking for was something more immediate, like “He’s trying to apologize to his wrecked car.”) I can tell that, to an extent, that’s what I’m doing here.

  7. Will Hindmarch
    December 4, 2008

    Thinking out loud here: the problem may be that “to command the awesome powers of magic” means almost the same thing as “to use the skills you bought.” It’s not actually what you’re trying to do. The kernel of the game is not “to employ your skills,” right?

    You’re trying to command the awesome of powers of magic so that you can achieve… what?

  8. Jeff Tidball
    December 4, 2008

    That’s a good point, but in this case, I think you’re illuminating a problem (i.e., a “problem”) with Ars Magica rather than with the theoretical model, because I’m beginning to think that it’s a game where the activity itself seems to also be the desired end of playing.

    In D&D, you kill monsters so you can level up; the tie between the two is tight.

    In ArM, you use magic so you can… um… do whatever you want?

    Not only is the tie loose, but the “do whatever you want” part doesn’t tie back into the magic use in the way that leveling up in D&D explicitly improves your ability to kill more monsters. ArM culture, if not the ArM rulebook, shits all over the concept that what wizards ought to be doing with their lives is killing monsters.

    So, maybe what I’m saying is that yes, I think people play ArM to employ the skills they bought – specifically, to employ the awesome powers of magic, which are presumably cool in and of themselves to anyone who’d be interested in playing that particular game.

    (It occurs to me now, as an afterthought, that the seasonal study mechanics, and their basis in the existing magical capabilities of the magus, does provide something of a feedback loop between the activity and its end. You study magic in the summer to get better at it so you’ll be more productive when you study magic again in the fall.)

  9. deadlytoque
    December 4, 2008

    I recently watched the “making of” videos that came on the bonus disc of the Fallout 3 Collector’s Edition, and they dealt with a similar issue with that game’s design. They basically asked themselves “what are players going to be doing a lot of?” and “how can we make those repetitive tasks enjoyable?” So you have a lot of design mentality focused on things like inventory management and wasteland-exploring, and little touches of colour and excitement to spice up an otherwise dull moment.

    I (perhaps wrongly) am getting the impression that -that’s- the point of this “core one minute” and feeding it back into the game experience: how can I make the most-repeated task of the game both fun and rewarding. Which is slightly different, now that I’ve actually written it down, from the “core one minute”, isn’t it?

    So maybe ArM follows a philosophy more like that of Fallout 3, in that rather than targeting a core mechanic, it was more like “what do wizards do A LOT OF and how can we make those things fun?”

  10. Will Hindmarch
    December 4, 2008

    I don’t think you’re wrong, deadlytoque, about that repetition. All* games are based around repeated actions that vary under changing circumstances, whether it’s making bets in Hold ‘Em or moving assets in Chess. That repetitive action is where the core one minute comes from — if you take a one-minute clip of any gameplay experience, what are the players likely to be doing?

    The trouble is this: That one minute might not be why you play or why the game is fun and it may not actually be representative of what gives the game its character.

    Things like some RPGs and most MMORPGs are difficult to digest this way, though, ’cause they’re made up of lots of little miniature game elements existing in tandem (and cooperating, ideally) to create the illusion of a large and living world. Is the core minute of WOW the part where you kill and loot a boar or the part where you turn the quest in or the part where you hit the next crafting tier or what?

    A game like Ars Magica wasn’t designed with a core minute in mind, I’ll bet. I might even argue that it was designed to defy categorization by its minutia in favor of an identity based on Bigger Things. That might mean high-faluting stuff like Story or just bigger-picture stuff like the years-long saga of a covenant rather than the minute-long battle of a grog.

    *(Not all.)

  11. Paul Czege
    December 8, 2008

    I propose that the core one minute of Ars Magica is “to test the power of magic and love against doubt and fear,” where love equals community and doubt equals an awareness of human limitations and the counter-pressure of the world, as represented by the system.

  12. Pookie
    December 9, 2008

    This echoes one of my own maxims, that “An RPG must be easily described and sold to the customer in just a single, simple, and direct sentence.”

  13. John Scott Tynes
    December 9, 2008

    I got the “one minute” idea from the videogame Halo, where the attack/take cover/recharge-shield mechanic is a loop the player performs thousands of times, but each instance of that loop is big fun.

    In most tabletop RPGs, one minute is not much time to do anything except make and resolve a die roll. I think suggesting that one minute of play in ArM is sufficient to encapsulate “testing the power of magic and love against doubt and fear” is a bit of a stretch.

    The problem is with the one-minute rule, not with ArM. I would suggest considering a Powers-of-Ten kind of approach where we can see different core fun experiences at different scales of play. Here’s an example using ArM.

    Core one minute of fun: Task resolution with the possibility of unbounded upper success.

    Core ten minutes of fun: Walking and talking and interacting in a vivid fantasy world.

    Core hour of fun: Testing the power of magic and love against doubt and fear.

    Core session of fun: Resolving a challenging dilemma with your wit, skills, and powers.

    Core campaign of fun: Exploring the life-cycle of a covenant of wizards.

    Each of those escalates the scale of the experience and each is a different form of fun.

  14. Christian Lindke
    December 15, 2008

    I think that Paul Czege gets at the “why” people play Ars Magica, but not at the “core minute.”

    The core minute of Ars Magica is the designing of new spells, which is a narrower aspect of Jeff’s initial proposal.

    The core minute of Car Wars is automobile design, people spend more time making cars than playing the actual game. The fun is in the construction.

    This is also a part of the “problem” with The Hero Games System. As the system has evolved, it hasn’t evolved along a path of better “emulating superheroes in action.” Instead, it emulates — extraordinarily well btw — representing the mechanics of superpowers. The fun for many Hero “granular is better” diehards is in the quantified representation of the character, not in the game play. One can see how this influenced Mutants and Masterminds as it transitioned from 1st to 2nd edition. Green Ronin thought that the core minute was “beating up baddies,” when it is still “designing superheroes.” That’s why there was the uproar, which I disagreed with, for more granularity in skills and a rejection of certain design elements (i.e. Super-Attributes as representation of broad skill sets, aka the Reed Richards solution).

    The core minute of My Life With Master is “collective narrative creation.” Designing the milieu is one of the most engaging aspects of the game. My group creates masters for campaigns we’ll never play.

  15. Christian Lindke
    December 15, 2008

    Short version of the above. Some games have “designing the game” as their core minute of fun.

  16. Ben
    December 15, 2008

    Some games might have “designing the game” as their core minute, but I don’t think that’s Ars Magica‘s.

    Some of our players are diehard ArM fans, but spell design is the least of their interests– they’re looking for the story, the manipulations of their House, their covenant, their own character. Magic enables those machinations to a greater extent, but it is certainly not their focus of play.

    To command the awesome power of magic is probably the closest I think I’ve seen yet, but the power of 10 breakdown wasn’t far from the mark either.

    Though I think it’s worth saying, I’d be hard pressed to summarize Ars in a single sentence that would make it a certain sell– but I think it’s one of the most flexible, engaging RPGs I’ve gotten to enjoy yet…If someone had been forced to describe it in a sentence, I don’t know if I’d have been as hooked.


  17. Jeff Tidball
    December 17, 2008

    Car Wars invoked! Score!

    Christian, I think that Car Wars is actually two games in the same way that miniatures wargaming is two hobbies. One, yes, is about creating a car (or painting an army), but I think you also have to acknowledge that the core act of the other part is something like, “to shoot your opponent’s car” (“to kill your opponent’s metal dudes”).

    If you’re right, though, it nails the reason for the failure of the most recent edition of Car Wars: it was no longer possible to carry out the game’s core act.

    However, I think that a more likely explanation (for its failure) is that Steve Jackson wanted to charge about $100 for 18 car designs and 9 copies of a twelve-page rulebook, and everyone said, “Steve, what the hell are you talking about?”

  18. Paul Chapman
    December 29, 2008

    Car Wars was designed as a single game (core minute = “penetrate opponent’s armor”), but evolved into two (“penetrate” + “maximize the design”). The Fifth Edition’s lack of sales *could* be traced to the design decision to pare it back down to one (but there were a handful of other factors that contributed).


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