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Today, a GenCon follow-up piece from guest contributor Jesse Scoble. Read more of Jesse on his website, at

Last month I was lucky enough to attend GenCon, and I caught one of the “Pencils to Pixels” panels (apologies for all alliteration), given by Dave Williams (of Red5 Studios, formerly a designer at AEG), Ed Stark (of Red5 Studios, formerly of Wizards of the Coast), and Jack Emmert (of Cryptic Studios, developer of Champions Online and Star Trek Online, formerly of City of Heroes).

The discussion was on the transition of game designers from pen&paper RPGs to video games. Specifically MMOs in this case, but I think many of their comments are applicable to all sorts of digital game development. Although I’m nowhere near the designer that these guys are, I’ve worked in pen&paper games for more than 6 years now, and have about 3 years working for various computer game companies under my belt. So I figured I would try to riff on some of their ideas and add my own thoughts to the similarities, differences, and trends across the two fields.

Unfortunately, the way the pen&paper market has downturned so much in the past 5 or 10 years, it’s very hard to make a living wage doing game writing or design full time in hobby games. There are only a handful of companies big enough to employ a full staff, and salaries aren’t great at the best of times. Never mind working full-time as a freelancer.

Video game companies, conversely, are often well funded. In many ways, video games are seen (rightly or wrongly) as “the promised land.” After soldiering in the trenches of the hobby game industry, your “reward” is to get attached to a big video game. And while they may not pay as well as more professional/corporate careers, they tend to offer reasonable benefits, a living wage, and at least a few perks. On the other hand, the downsides are that you may work in obscurity (see the recent credit issues for Warhammer Online), you may work for months or years and have a project shelved indefinitely (“I can not make games anywhere,” as a friend likes to say), and the market tends to be fairly volatile. Lots of boom and bust cycles in short order.

And of course, comparing pen&paper game design to video game design is more like apples to boxing orangutans than Apples to Apples, but I digress. Video game designers like to look at the pen&paper industry as a training ground, of sorts. Many of the same meta-skills start there, such as: trying to identify what makes a game fun; learning to iterate on design; developing a critical eye for other games; learning to steal from pay homage to and improve (read: polish) on other game systems.

One of the ideas that came from the panel was that “it’s better to learn and make mistakes with a budget of $10k than a budget of $100 million.” And that’s certainly true to an extent. If your game is a bust—and you have to fail once in a while to get a sense of what works and what doesn’t—it really is better to lose a few thousand than hundreds of thousands. But if that means 10k on maxed out credit cards, it’s not necessarily less painful.

Ideas vs. Product

“Perseverance is needed to get a game to the state where others can play it.”Dave Williams

One of the sentiments that all the panelists agreed on was this: ideas are cheap. Everyone has a good idea (or thinks they do). This is true in pretty much all creative fields, whether novels, TV, movies, comics, or games. “I have a great idea. You do all the work and we’ll split the proceeds 50/50,” is a sentiment that makes real creatives want to scream, and stab the speaker in the eyes with a fork.

Dave Williams often cites the quote, “Real artists ship.” And because the barrier to entry is much lower in pen&paper games, developing those games amounts to a good basic training course. It can give an aspiring designer a reachable goal, and a tremendous boost and sense of accomplishment when he or she first holds a tangible product. Further, taking your product through play-testing (ideally), and then into the world where others will review it, is invaluable. You need to develop a thick-enough skin to stand by your ideas, but also be able to hear constructive criticism and grow from it.

Digital Game Design

“A game designer’s role may not be to come up with the best game design, but to be able to identify the best idea that comes up.”Jack Emmert

For the most part, pen&paper designers can work alone, or in very small groups. And other than making sure the math works and the grammar is clean and tight, there’s not much else you need. (I’m oversimplifying, of course, and ignoring the real value graphic designers and artists add. Yes, they do complete a project, but normally the game is playable even without final graphics). Even for something as gigantic as A Game of Thrones d20/Tri-Stat RPG, there were probably 4-6 key designers, tops. (We needed the army of writers, artists, and editors to make the whole package into something grand. But you could play the game with just the work of those half-dozen key people).

Design for digital games, however, normally involves a much more complicated relationship between game designers, writers, artists, and, of course, programmers. A very small team of 4 or 5 is possible, in small studios where people wear lots of different hats, but to ship something AAA quality or with the depth of an MMO requires a team of 20, or 50, or 100.

For the sake of argument, let’s say the core idea for a new game comes from the game design department. (Incidentally, this department may or may be integrated with the studio’s writers; anecdotally, video game writers are normally low-man on the totem pole, and treated with as little, or less, respect as writers are in Hollywood. The difference between video game writers and screenwriters is that you can’t film a movie without a script. Actors need dialog and directors need scenes, so if there’s no writer, there’s no movie. With a game, though, a programmer actually can start building something whether or not it has a plot, characters, or “story.” So at video game studios, to be blunt, writers are often tacked on, or shoehorned in. That’s changing in some studios, but in the industry overall it’s like molasses in January. Here endeth the tangent). In any case, say a core idea for a new game comes from the game design department. Next, the tech leads analyze the requirements and suggest what is, or isn’t, viable, as well as the best technology to accomplish it. The art leads chime in and explain what can be accomplished within their art budget. Motion capture or full animation. Do it in-house or contract it out.

And these different departments may make suggestions that would change gameplay. It becomes the lead game designer’s role to analyze the pros and cons and pick the path that results in the best game experience. The most fun. As they said at the panel, to make a symphony from all the different sounds.

Vision Cop

“You need to have a Vision Cop.”Ed Stark

Although the old axiom, “good, fast, cheap—pick two,” tends to hold true, for games, most of what people want is actually within reach… assuming enough time and money. So it’s more like: “good, fast, cheap—pick one.” Because game design means working in a team—and don’t imagine you won’t get suggestions, ideas, critiques and comments from every division (let alone the beta testers!)—the lead designer needs to play the role of “vision cop.” He or she needs to keep the game’s vision, theme, and play-experience in mind and make sure that “feature creep” doesn’t set it, slowing the project down by months or years.

As a good exmaple of the need for a vision cop, at the panel, it was mentioned that Cryptic Studios is working on both Champions Online and Star Trek Online. Now, some superheroes like Superman and Green Lantern and Silver Surfer travel through space. Even the X-men have traveled to far off galaxies. And Champions can replicate any superhero story or genre. So why not take the Star Trek spaceship tech and modify it to work in Champions Online? Add, y’know, a few dozen worlds to explore, and wow, what a game! The vision cop needs to weigh the pros and cons. Yes, awesome game, but when would it see the light of day? 2025?

The Game of Scheduling

“In tabletop [games], you can quantify the time it takes to do anything. [We had it] down to a science. But you can’t schedule software like that.”Ed Stark

I clearly need to take some lessons from Ed and his days at WoTC. But I get what he was saying. You can predict, roughly, how long it will take a writer to write a chapter. Or an artist to illustrate a piece. But digital games can be so complex, making a change to a core element may touch everything. And if certain choices are hard-coded, it may be almost more trouble than it’s worth to rip it out and create a dynamic system. And of course, you also have to take into account the technology of your player base, and what the standards will be down the road, when you plan to launch. Lengthy delays can create cascading effects from which you may never recover.

Ease of scheduling is certainly one strong advantage of pen&paper games. Let’s say someone bought the rights to an old game property, be it Amber, Marvel Super Heroes, or Silver Age Sentinels. A single designer could pick up where the old team left off and either add new, directly compatible material, or more likely (for market reasons) fix up some of the problems, polish the best ideas, and release a new edition. Although there have been some advances in RPG game design over the years, in a lot of ways, today’s pen&paper RPGs really aren’t that different from the old Red Box D&D. Computer games, on the other hand, age quickly. As much as I loved playing Fallout or Fallout 2, or Diablo 2, it’s hard to load them up today (mever mind even trying to run Syndicate, X-com, or Alone in the Dark—and these were all the cream of the crop in their day).

Trends in Future of Design

“Players will incentivise themselves to death. If the optimum path is boring, they will do it, then blame you, then quit.”Dave Williams

Do pen&paper games have a future? Sure, although they may well become even more niche than they are now, with even smaller print runs. However, PDF sales and online shopping may actually help boost the circulation of products that couldn’t survive as hardcopies in a local retail store market. But even if you can sell a product to a very dispersed crowd, can you create the player networks you need to establish a viable game network? That is, will people actually play your game?

Of course, everyone wonders what the new trends in online gaming will be. Many publishers (the game lingo equivalent of “Hollywood studios”) won’t risk AAA budgets on innovative or radically different design. Thus, the way certain Hollywood blockbusters only generate malformed offspring, so too does sequelitis infect many game producers.

Although World of Warcraft is the homerun king of gaming at the moment, to beat the decaying horse, WoW primarily took Everquest and “made it more pleasant.” Many developers (such as those on the panel) suggest that it set the clock back by years.

One of the trends everyone is pushing for is “player-generated content.” That’s another core difference between a pen&paper RPG and an MMO: in a pen&paper game, even if two groups play the same scenario with the same GM, it will be a very different experience for each. Unique, one might even say. But if two teams play through the same mission in an MMO, each group will often have the same experience. Every single time. It’s not about saving the princess and being the heroic knight. It’s about saving the same damn princess, who some people save over and over and over to get the phat loot drops.

A secondary problem with MMOs is that players chew through content. If you can log on and play for four hours every night, you’re going to burn through missions and enemies and loot. Developers simply can’t keep spinning out new content fast enough.

Player-generated content may help deal with both of these problems. I don’t believe it will be a panacea, but it will help add new content that you can share with other players. In that sense, it does become a more unique player experience, or player story. And it helps players have a lasting impact on the game world. You may never get to marry the town-bicycle princess, but you may gain fame by building your own Keep on the Borderlands or Spider Skull Island Mission Set.

Jesse Scoble is a writer, story-editor, and game designer in no particular order. He was Creative Director on the award-winning A Game of Thrones RPG. He has contributed to more than two-dozen books, including the world bible for the superhero game line, Silver Age Sentinels, two SAS short-story anthologies, and several books for White Wolf and Green Ronin (forthcoming). He worked as a web content writer for a series of NCsoft’s MMOs, including City of Heroes, Dungeon Runners, and Exteel. Currently, he works as creative lead on a project for Ganz (Webkinz) in Toronto. In his spare time he works on screenplays.