Last year we spent a lot of time imagining, writing, and testing new games. We expected to get two titles out of this at least and maybe three or four. We didn’t get any. Well, we got one (Hollowpoint), but it’s still not in publication because I am a lazy bastard and am still laying it out. I will spend a little energy thinking out loud about what this year taught me and why that translates into so few new games.
There’s a great book you should probably read called The Mythical Man Month by Fred Brooks. It’s about software engineering in the 60s and it’s not strictly true any more with respect to software engineering, largely because of critical changes in communication technologies which change the cost of interaction, possibly below some critical threshold. Anyway, whether or not the core premises are obsolete, the book still contains powerful insights about system projects, and games are system projects.
A system project is a project that builds some relatively complicated machine that can be broken down into sub-components that are also machines. Machines are things that take an input, crunch some process over it, and create an output that is more useful. A lever is a machine. It takes force in one side, uses some basic physics relating to length and mass, and produces different forces on the other side that might be more useful in some contexts. Games are machines too. Complicated games are systems of machines (a randomization machine — dice, a narrative effect machine — modifiers, a spotlight-management machine — taking turns, etc.).
Making a system is complicated because you care about the interaction between sub-system as well as the specific function of each sub-system. And you can get effect loops, which is where the real monsters hide, where a sub-system affects the operation of a seemingly unrelated sub-system because you didn’t do a complete feedback analysis. Anyway, a game is sufficiently like a software project that there might be something interesting in this book if you’re interested in games.
A lot of what’s in that book is no longer strictly relevant, but one thing I think certainly is: the second system syndrome. This is when you finish one system and it works and is well-received and so you start work on your next one and you imagine all the things you did wrong on the first one. Or find new enthusiasm in focus on some particular element of the previous one. Whatever your passion relating to the first system, you over-focus and produce a plan for a second system that is broken because you’ve lost sight of the explicit requirements of your project and instead see only the passion from the first project. Projects can progress for a very long time down this fruitless path before aborting or reigning in the process.
We kind of went there. Reading The Mythical Man Month does not make you immune to it. We floundered around with several ideas which looked good to me because am designing-as-art a lot of the time and having a great time doing it. But in play it was not coming together and it took a long time to figure out that I had to start over rather than keep pushing at something that was very pretty as a machine but did not function as intended.
The eye-opener was playing other games. Note to self: play other games.
Partly this was playing games that did not work for us. Some failed because they had exactly the same pretensions I had. Some failed because they were quite the opposite of what I want to do (whether in play or in design). Some failed because character creation was not fun and I need it to be fun. Most of these failures revealed errors in my own work. Some gave me clues to new features because I didn’t know I didn’t like some things. It pays to analyze failure.
The other part was playing games that did work. Gamma World was a hoot and yet it is very far afield from my own design interests. We played some Wings of War and the elegance of that card-controlled simulation struck all kinds of chords for me. And we played several sessions of Diaspora, which reminded me what parts we did right — and that we should at a minimum not throw those bits out when designing something new with the FATE engine.
So last year we built a few second systems but, to our credit, we didn’t pursue them too far. Well, barring one, but I will reconstruct Soft Horizon this year so that it’s more fun than clever and see if we can’t rescue it. It was a fun year with lots of creative frustration but also lots of great gaming with very smart, witty, and above all, patient friends.
Oh yeah, the lesson learned? It’s not really how to avoid second system syndrome, because having read the book I didn’t really discover a way to avoid it in the first place. I only discovered that it happens. And the book doesn’t teach you how to avoid it because in a way it’s not avoidable. Rather it’s something that you can recover from once it happens.
So here are some lessons. FATE is pretty bloody good at what it does so don’t dick with it too much. The cluster generation system in Diaspora is awesome but it’s not automatically awesome — getting the stats right is critical (yay Chimaera, nay Soft Horizon). Phased character generation is a reliable way to get shared character generation sessions to work — start there. A cool new system isn’t automatically cool for every new game idea. If Tim’s not having fun then something is actually wrong. Ignore the advice of anyone who does not actually play games.
And derived from that last: play games.