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31 Oct 2012

Game development blog no.3

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This is part of a series. You can read the previous entry here: Game development blog no.2

The Corruption Game is now going by the working title of "Kleptocracy". Unfortunately, I have to report that this development is probably the only satisfying move in the right direct that the game has taken over the past week.

Last night, on the surface, we had a very negative playtest of the game as it stands. This game is split into roughly two areas of focus - one is each player (a member of the Russian cabinet) trying to build up as much influence as possible in various areas of Russian life (Church, Media, Business, Energy, FSB etc.) and the second is the role of President that gets passed around between players and deliberately distorts the whole game in the president's favour.

We only played two rounds, before the analysis of the game overtook any immersion in the game and we stopped playing. The game was too bitty, lacked focus and was all about the president while the other players didn't have much a sense of identity or many meaningful choices to make. There was also no risk for the individual cabinet members as they sought to gain influence - their actions didn't intrude upon anyone else's, nor were there any particular tricky decisions to make en route.

Out of all those very valid criticisms, I'm only concerned about the lack of focus and the lack of risk or jeopardy. Everything else I pretty much expected. It's a tough leap of faith to take, but I know well enough by now that the games I design feel pretty broken until they're about 75% complete. I put this down to relying on human interaction as the "glue" that holds everything else together. So, for example, something that would feel bitty and unstructured in an abstract strategy game can work wonderfully as distraction and pressure in a game that plays off the players.

The game does indeed need a focus though and I think I might be getting too bogged down in this idea of the President being able to make up rules - I might shelve that temporarily while I work out what the heart of the game should be.

The other problem is risk. I did wonder when I decided upon the game's narrative whether there is much natural risk in those roles. After all, when you're a member of the power elite, how much risk do you really run? Losing your power? And what does that mean, is it just falling out of favour with those more powerful than you? Is it losing opportunity and prospects to advance your position? It's a hard thing to define.

This is where political game design makes things so difficult. To stay true to the objective of the game and to keep the game as a useful satire, the risk the players need to be introduced to has to also be meaningful; it has to stem from something recognisable and real.

You see, with "regular" game design, if you need a game element like the introduction of risk, you can do almost anything. Granted you are probably thinking of a theme and a narrative and you need something that is intuitive, but otherwise your options are wide open. The freedom is there to bolt onto the game whatever is required. But this rarely works with "critical games", where the mechanics and the theme are tightly interwoven.

The process that I'm now faced with is a bit more convoluted - I have to go back to source, re-read about the nature of endemic corruption and probe the subject until I can identify a real-world risk in that system ... then I have to retranslate that risk back into the game in order to arrive at a conflicting mechanic that not only makes sense, but heightens the realism and roleplay elements of the game.

This approach means every design decision takes about ten times longer than it should and is bundled up in further hours of research into the subject matter, but it's immensely rewarding to get it right. (I think we struck lucky in War on Terror when from the beginning we had this notion of funding terrorism that - once on the board - could be potentially used by any player).

So, this week's lesson is: You're going to have test sessions where it feels like there's so much going wrong, the easiest thing to do is start-over. Sometimes that's exactly what you need to do, but sometimes the last thing you should do is listen to every single criticism. You need to identify the critical faults. In order to help me do that, I try and jot down everyone's comments as they speak and then write a brief "counter" underneath each one. Afterwards, when I can view things more objectively, I read through those counter-arguments and work out which still stand and put those criticisms completely out of my mind. I safely dismiss them entirely. After all, if I'm wrong and they're really valid after all, they'll surface again soon enough!

Sometimes, a bit of blind faith in your own vision is occasionally needed to see you through the rocky patches.

Posted by Andy S on 31 October 2012 - 2 comments

Comments so far:

  1. Looking at Russia today, isn't the risk being put in prison for something like tax evasion, as a number of oligarchs who tried to challenge Putin have been. You might need to widen the players roles to more than just members of the cabinet - they could be primarily politicians or primarily oligarchs, maybe even Church Primates (though that last one might be hard to work in well). Each player could have a certain amount of power, of money, of media control, of popularity, of influence in different spheres. Let's call them "stats". Between elections, players could do actions that increase their own stats (however you manage that), or reduce other players stats. These actions may well have side effects - skeletons in your closet that can be used against you down the road. There would then be alliances between players (shifting alliances of course) that would lead to changes in how you accumulate power/money/influence. Come the election, there would be a "vote" where players used their stats (and maybe cards to boost stats) to elect the next president (after the requisite horse trading for favours etc). One mechanism could be cards that you can't use on yourself - maybe for appearance sake or whatever. So rather than increasing your own stats, it increases someone elses. But when you do that for someone, they have to reveal one of the skeletons they have in their closet. Other cards can attack players if they have a matching skeleton in their closet (eg put them in prison for tax evasion). It would be great if the game play could sometimes lead to one player becoming the power behind the throne - they never become president themselves, but they have so much dirt on the other key players that they become untouchable, picking and choosing presidents as they come and go. Also, with the creating new rules/laws aspect, maybe the new laws have to get enough support from other players in order to pass. A similar mechanism to electing the president could be used. Only the president would be able to propose stuff to vote on though. Would have to be done carefully to not get too complicated, but the mechanics could work. And let me know if you want play testers - always happy to help out :) HamishHamish from Work - 31 October 2012
  2. Hey Hamish! Wow, all those are wonderful, rich suggestions. Certainly fired off a lot of thoughts - I like the idea of having something that you need to hide, skeletons in the closet as you put it. And I also like the idea of building up some sort of reputation that can give you leverage at different points in the game. Maybe this is exactly what "influence" is. Part of what I'm looking at right now is exactly what this currency of influence is, where it comes from, how it's manipulated etc. Thanks for your awesome comment. As soon as there's a stable(ish) game to be played, I'll drag you down the pub to give it a spin.Andrew from The Bunker - 31 October 2012

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