Monday, July 15, 2013

Come Out and Play 2013: A reminder that games are more than mechanics

Max writes about his design takeaways from this year's Come Out and Play festival in NYC--primarily the importance of often-undervalued elements of game design: ritual, theme, and atmosphere.

On Friday I had the good fortune to visit New York's Come Out and Play festival, a free days-long event where players gather to play active sports, LARPs, treasure hunts, experimental installation games, and more.  I ran a Tiltfactor game we have been working on about plague in medieval Europe (Leechwyves & Bonesetters), which was great!  In addition, the other games I played and watched were enlightening experiences.

This festival served as a reminder to me that not all games need to be contained in a box, commercializable, or replayable.  We all know that this is the case, but for me it is often hard to remember since all the games I play and design put premiums on those elements.  Here are some of the lessons I learned.

Leechwyves & Bonesetters: Ritual can be everything
Leechwyves & Bonesetters is a reskin of Tiltfactor's RePlay Health game.  RePlay Health is an active game designed to be played in classrooms and conferences that illustrates some elements of the U.S. health care system, and ways to improve it.  The game is fun (especially as its players would otherwise be sitting in lectures), but a little dry because of its topic.  For Leechwyves & Bonesetters, we set out to liven up RePlay Health armed only with narrative and ritual--we set it in the middle ages and made it about combating plague.

Without going to deeply into the design of the games, RePlay Health features a segment where players vote on exceptions-based mechanical changes to the game that improve the system in some way.  In the original, players gather around these printed "Initiatives" and put their hand on the one they want to vote for.  In Leechwyves & Bonesetters, peasants (those are the players) vote by yelling their approval of the "Proclamation" they want, and the loudest cheers win.  Then the chosen "Proclamation" is hammered into a piece of wood, Martin Luther style.  These small logistical changes make the whole process more engaging and captivating.

Similarly, where in RePlay you simply wait for care at the Primary Care Physician or Emergency Room stations and then draw a card to see how your health changes, in Leechwyves & Bonesetters players reach into a jar of (realistic) leeches or drink a vial of foul liquid to have their plague healed.  

These added ritual elements can be extremely potent in changing the players game experience!

The Hearst Collection: Theme and narrative can make rules unnecessary
I want you to take part in a brief exercise: look at the picture below and tell me how you think the game is played.

If you said "You have to maneuver yourself through the room to get to the end (and return with the valuable painting) without touching the lasers" you would be completely correct.

A few months back Nick wrote about how theme and narrative are conceptual models for game design that, among other things, can help players quickly and easily grasp the mechanics of the game:

"When a designer presents a game to a player, it's possible to use to the theme as an entry into the mechanics. Concepts like buying property, paying rent, and going to jail are easy for a player to map to the mechanics of Monopoly. On the other hand, if a player is presented with a screen that features a short marching line of black pixels and a randomly placed star, they won't even know where to begin. If you call the same game Snake, a player can immediately build a model where the "snake" "grows" as it "eats" "food." (And of course, other themes are always possible.)"

The Hearst Collection was a shining example of using conceptual models to facilitate learning the gameplay.  Upon seeing pictures of the game, or the game setup, knew exactly how to play at a single glance.  There were no rules for this game on site, nor did the volunteer running it ever utter a word to the players.  The game simply leverages the common movie and fiction trope of laser-tripping security systems and suddenly everyone knows what to do.

Edgar Rice Frotteur
: Atmosphere can make a good game great
Imagine you're playing Twister in a dark room with a techno soundtrack.  Imagine you must change the positioning of your hands at intervals in time with the beat.  Now imagine instead of spots on the ground, you must grab Playstation Move controllers hanging from the ceiling with your hands.  This is somewhat like the experience of Edgar Rice Frotteur.

What makes this game fascinating to watch and play, however, is not the clever mechanics that have the players attempting to switch from one hanging controller to another of the their color while preventing their opponents from doing the same.  What's really great about Edgar Rice Frotteur is the entrancing atmosphere created by the synthesis of the music, the visuals and the mechanics.  This atmosphere takes a game mechanically similar to Twister and makes it so much more. 

Edgar Rice Frotteur was a lesson in the power of atmosphere to shape player experience beyond the simple mechanics.

I feel like many people "know" that games are more than just mechanics, but just as many don't really really believe.  Every now and again it's good to have a reminder of the potency of ritual, theme, narrative, and atmosphere.