Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Ask A Developer (Garret Rempel, Part One)

Here's a new feature for you guys. It's called "Ask a Developer", and it's a series of questions to explain and understand how developers work, in addition to giving them a space to pitch their new game.

I teased Garret that the next version of "Ask a Developer" is going to be called "Ask a Developer: 100 Words or Less", so that the hook is every answer has to be 100 words or less. But his answers are so thoughtful that I know you'll enjoy reading the extended version of this feature.

Describe your game in one paragraph.
Flipped Off! is a tactical card game for 2-5 players where you play a plotting Mastermind aiming to defeat your rivals and seize victory. You must manage your Minions - the Pirates, Ninjas, and Robots that do your bidding, play Actions that can improve your situation or wreak havoc with your enemies, and use your cards to launch attacks and hope that your rivals can’t turn the cascade of results to their own advantage.

What were your objectives (max three) with the original design?
My primary objective for this game was based around using a flip mechanic – where cards in play have a different effect on each side of the card, and when it is activated the card flips, changing its effect – and putting this mechanic into the hands of the players.

My other two objectives were to emphasize organic complexity (depth), by using a simple set of rules that could be combined in many different ways to produce a great deal of variation. And to keep the game both quick and fluid, by limiting the number of actions each player can take on their turn and also allowing other players to be involved with each turn. During each turn a player has 4 actions they can take (draw a card, play an action, swap a minion, and attack) but they must also choose between playing it safe and keeping control of what happens on their turn (not attacking, playing a passive action) or taking a risk (attacking, playing an aggressive action) by allowing another player to take an active part in the turn - but gambling that they could get a much bigger benefit by doing so at the risk of having the tables turned on them.

What distinguishes your game? 

Flipped Off! plays like a cross between Fluxx (draw a card, play a card) and Magic: The Gathering. Its distinguishing feature is that using your Minions to attack other players can cause a chain reaction – allowing that player to attack another, and so on. But how that chain progresses is under the control of the player who was attacked. This can quickly allow all players to be directly involved in every turn, but it opens up opportunities for clever players to turn the tables on their attacker and to try and turn any move to their advantage.

This can lend a feeling of Russian Roulette – that the simple act of taking your turn can go very, very badly. It means that players have to carefully consider how they approach the game, balancing a cautious approach of playing defensively and playing not to lose, against being aggressive and looking to manipulate the board to their advantage in order to force a combo with big rewards.

How long does it take to play?
For a 4 player game 15-30 minutes once you are familiar with the Advanced Rules, up to an hour if you’re just learning. The Beginner’s Rules by themselves take a little longer to play because it limits the wild, complex cascade effects that can happen with the Advance Rules. A 2 player game can take as little as 5-10 minutes.

What are your strongest gaming influences?
That is a difficult question to answer, both because there are so many, but also because it is hard to separate games I’ve enjoyed from ones that were truly influential, but the most influential would have to be Chess. As a player, I am not good at the game. I can play well if I spend the time to think hard about my moves, but I prefer to play quickly and recklessly, and make lots of mistakes. What was influential about Chess though is in its concept and its implementation. Small board, limited number of pieces each with a very limited set of options, yet it could produce such a beautiful conflict between two players. That such a simple game could produce endless variation and replayability was huge. It led to my discovery of real-time strategy games on the computer (Warcraft, Age of Empires, Starcraft, Command & Conquer, etc, etc, etc.) which live in the same space. Generally they are more complicated than chess, but the endless variations mean they are still among my favourites.

What are your best gaming memories?
It took me a long time to understand that my best memories about gaming – have nothing really to do with the games themselves. My best memoires are always about the people that I played with, and that the game was simply the setting. There are a few exceptions where I have been surprized or in awe of something a game has done (Elder Scrolls: Morrowind and Mass Effect stick out), but the best times are the ones that involve people. Learning to play checkers with my grandfather, mapping dungeons with my father, the gleam in the eye of a notoriously evil dungeon master, and the groan of my coworker around a Settlers board when I drop the mic by flipping a victory point off the top of the dev card pile to win it… for the third game in a row.

People make the best gaming memories.

Who is your favorite designer, and why?
There are any number of designers that I quite appreciate and respect both from the realm of computer games and from tabletop games, but I have to give it to Bruce Shelley for Age of Empires. Between the chess-like strategic gameplay, the innovative take on historical education, and the simple elegance with which it is presented. The game was able to provide a platform that could produce strategic complexity, it could be used to form a narrative, and it also connected with the human experience on a historical scale. It was an accomplishment that surpassed its flaws. Add onto that fact that he was also involved with the Civilization franchise and Railroad Tycoon (both of which were favourites of mine as well) he would have to be my favourite.

What game have you played for the most hours? Why?
If I consider game series, then I would be hard pressed to choose between Warcraft, Starcraft, Age of Empires, Civilization, Elder Scrolls, Baldur’s Gate/Neverwinter Nights, and Diablo.

On the tabletop, Dungeons and Dragons wins hands-down for sheer time investment, but Settlers of Catan (and its spinoffs), Cribbage, and Scrabble are also high on my list.

But the single game I have played for the most number of hours (excepting D&D) is Age of Empires 2: Age of Kings for all the reasons I mentioned above in regards to Bruce, but also because I worked on a site called Age of Kings Battlefield during the late 90s / early 2000s which was built around an active, dedicated, and friendly community of forum users. The strength of the Battlefield was the community and as a result there were many, many late nights of playing Age of Kings with people that I considered friends.

What is your design process? What would you consider the foundation of your process?
My design process always starts with a single idea. It could be a mechanic, a concept, a theme, or a combination of two elements, and it always comes to me in the form of “I like X, but what if?”. I like to take one element and then build upon it in my own way – following a series of decisions, pulling in unrelated elements from elsewhere to include, until I have something complete.

One of the earliest projects that I worked on with friends was fixing Axis & Allies. The mechanics of Axis & Allies was intriguing, but the static board and setup made the actual game a tedious slog (in my opinion). So we started by redrawing the map, and creating a fantasy world on which to play. Then because the static setup wasn’t fun, we created a simple purchase guideline for claiming territory and buying units to start the game using Risk as a model. Suddenly we had a brand new game, with all the strategy and fun parts of A&A, with a dynamic structure that allowed every game we played to be different and exciting.

In my current project Flipped Off!, I started with an interesting mechanic as a foundation – the card flip. The central component of the game would be flipping cards to affect the other players, and that each card would have different effects on each side of the card. That way a player had to weigh in the balance the effect a card would have by flipping, but also the potential impact that could occur by exposing the opposite side.

The rest of the game was built up from that one idea, and it was done by asking questions and then answering them. If cards are flipping – what kind of cards are they? Are there other kinds of cards in the game? How many times can a card flip? Can you flip other player’s cards? Can you protect a card from being flipped? How many different kinds of flippable cards are there? Are opposite sides of a card complementary, or do they have opposite or divergent effects? What kind of theme do the cards have? How does the theme relate to the effects on the cards?

The list of questions is long, but by writing down questions as I thought of them allowed me to revisit that list at any time and answer those questions. As the list of answers grew longer, the game began to take shape in my mind and the rules became clearer until I have the end product that you see today.

How do you handle design paralysis? What do you do to move forward?
Perfect is the enemy of good – better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.

From my experience as a software developer and consultant, projects are more consistently successful when you are aiming to produce and refine, than to perfect and deliver. By approaching a project with the aim to deliver something that is useable, no matter how flawed, and plan to revise and iterate to improve it – you will end up with a better product than if you spend twice as much time designing it first. The reason this is true is that usually the client doesn’t know what they need until they have the chance to try something and decide that it doesn’t meet their needs!

This works just as well for game design, I built something based on what I thought I wanted, making arbitrary decisions (or ignoring something entirely) if I didn’t know which would be best, and then I played it. Only once I could experience how a decision worked in practice, was I able to understand what I didn’t like about it, and how it could be changed to be better than it was.

When you are paralyzed by choice, the answer is simple – not necessarily easy – but simple. Do anything, and don’t fear the consequences of messing up. This is easier if you plan to mess up in the first place. Understand before you start that you will get things wrong, and you will get them wrong quite a lot. Don’t be afraid of failure, if something doesn’t work – learn why it didn’t work, and try again.

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