Thursday, May 31, 2007

Towards an Anthropology of gaming communities?

The ABC's online news has an article entitled "Online chat gets touchy-feely at its core", reporting on findings about communicative hierarchies of language register use made from a study of "online communities". Australian linguist Doctor Barbara Kelly of the University of Melbourne also suggests that "language analysis can be used as a way to confirm whether an online community is developing..."

It would be interesting to apply this to online gaming communities. We gamers have taken avidly to the use of computers as gaming machines since the days when you had to assemble your own computer to have one. Also, what we do online (gaming) is much the same kind of activity as what we do when we play over the kitchen table or down at the club - so the online community has its real world analogues and benchmarks. These features of gaming communities would seem to make them ideal observational laboratories for such social researchers as Dr Kelly.

My only real observation here is that the genuine online gamers who play in immersive realities (eg. Pacific Fighters and other real time interactive multiplayer games) definitely do have a communicative repertoire that exceeds in depth and complexity those used in the less immersive corners of the community (eg. forums and various general clearing house and newsey sites). This seems to have grown out of the useage of chat technologies (and email) and their language practices. It's like the more the fora relates to real world activity, the more formal/distant its language.

I wonder where the game blogging community fits in this theoretical spectrum?

It's something I might ponder about a bit more in the nearish future?

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

A National Games Convention

The Border Mail reports that the 2nd Australian Games Expo will soon be held in Albury, New South Wales. Click here to read the article. It looks like the organisers are aiming at making this a regular feature on the gaming festival calander.

The link, which I obtained from Yehuda's Jerusalem Games blog (thanks again, Yehuda) brought a real smile to my face. I used to live about 40 km from Albury, which lies on the New South Wales side of the Murray River. Ironically, that period of my life was that which followed those years outlined in my previous post, History of a Gamer (Pt1).

Not classic redneck countryside, but not far from it. Not really the cultural background you'd associate with serious gamers. But, you'd be wrong. Because even in the mid-eighties there were gamers there, playing Squad Leader and Dungeons and Dragons at school (there's a whole series of posts in these reminiscences - soon there'll be a link here), and borrowing a church hall once a week in Lavington and then Wodonga to put on a games night for the AWHGS (Albury Wodonga Historical Gaming Society). I remember attending a meeting or two of theirs - everyone seemed a bit nutso or neurotic to me so I stopped going - have since learnt that that is probably 'normal' for gamers (if there is such a thing).

But this post isn't meant to be simply another chapter in my bio - there's something important about the fact that even in rural Australia there are gamers keen enough to put on a national convention and expect thousands to attend. Our hobby is alive and well.

And, significantly, you can see the real world result of what one or two committed gamers can achieve. An inspiration to all of us who feel at times isolated and alone...

Monday, May 28, 2007

The Family that Games Together...

Came across this US newspaper article about the benefits of gaming, which I basically agree with and can vouch for from personal experience in terms of both my own childhood, and that of those with whom I've had the pleasure of sharing their growing up most closely. Thanks to Yehuda for posting the reference on Jerusalem Gamer.

Most recent games we've played here are all Card related games - Munchkins, Guilotine, Pass the Bomb.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

10 Rules of Game Design

I have a few little principles I try and follow when designing a game/scenario/adventure/module. Until now, I've never thought of them as a system of thought. Here's a brief attempt at putting the more obvious ones into a list of 'rules' of game design. Ha Ha.

1. It's about fun. Thus, if the way the game should be played makes it too complex/one sided/long for the particular scenario you have in mind, alter the details about how the rules/game will apply in this scenario to boost the fun level. You will always be forgiven for that minor ahistorical inconsistency/time warping fudged dice roll if the game was fun. It doesn't work the other way.

2. Keep it simple. This builds on Rule 1. Even with a complex game system, it should always be simple to work out what scenario specific objective must be reached in a game and, when it's over, whether that has been achieved. If there's one thing worse than a tail chasing argument about a rule, it's a tail chasing argument about a victory condition.

3. Give everyone a chance. OK, sometimes the best games are when someone has an almost impossible task to achieve. The trick is to make it no worse than almost. No-one likes to be a patsy.

4. Provide options. Don't lock a player into a totally preset course of action, where all they get to do is enact 'the plan', keep stats, roll dice. Of course, some players like this and they will be happy with the default position outlined at game start. But other players want to add their own brilliant insights to 'the plan'. Give them space to do this.

5. Time is an arrow, and in the game world it should point towards the end. Thus, set a scenario time limit, something for the player's to always fear as it creeps ineluctably towards them (even though it's actually them creeping towards it - time is an arrow, remember!). This will be a great spurr to action.

6. Playtest. Not always possible, but almost always so. The more your creation will be used by others, the more you should put into this. Thus, the twenty hour mission of East Front might only get one going over before you share it with your friend. But the half hour dogfight might get at least as long a testing before being released to an online community. The importance of playtesting is simple - it can help identify the obvious failings in what you have done that were so obvious you couldn't spot them in the theory.

7. Take time in Design. It's okay to whip up broad and simple parameters for an evening's gaming with friends, where you can modify as you go and everyone partakes of the same background 'culture' so that the gaming is probably as much what it's about as the game, but even this can get a bit same-old same-old. Rather, ponder what you're doing, research it, immerse yourself in the history/literature. Then set pen to paper / finger to keyboard. Properly done, this might lead to a game which is thick with meaning.

8. Brief. Brief your players well. Give them a written briefing, specific to their part in the game. Thus, separate briefings for each particpant. The fact it's written gives them something to ponder / interpret / feel paranoid about for the whole game - even in the quiet moments. The terms of your briefings should be concise. Everything should have a significance (albeit, one that may be unknown to the reader until too late). Just as in real life there may be inaccuracies and even deliberate falsehoods in the briefing, but remember that no-one likes to be lied to in a manner that gives them no chance. The briefing(s) set the terms upon which each of the players will participate in the shared 'reality' of the game.

9. Remember the bigger world. Your game should form a discreet episode in some larger event. If your game forms part of a broader campaign, this is taken care of. If your game is a one off, then you will have to decide what is the big picture in the 'virtual' game-world of which your particular game is but one episode. Express this 'reality' in the briefing and the game itself. Thus, the briefing sets the upcoming streetfight during the initial penetration into Stalingrad, communications might fail as a reflection of Stuka attacks in the rear areas of the battlespace. Basically, encourage your players to 'suspend disbelief' by 'expanding belief'. On another level - try and think about where in the Real World your game will take place, design a game that's practical.

10. Remember Rule No 1.

One day this list may seem a bit corny to me. If I want to change it, I will. That's another of the joys of blogging.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Art and Science of Game Design

Game Design broadly breaks down into the twin processes of System design and Scenario creation (or, system operation). System design is the broad rule and norm setting which defines the game. Scenario creation is the use of a design to create specific effects.

In many good games the two processes are combined in the one product. Thus, classic Avalon Hill boardgames and such computer games as Hearts of Iron all have a set of rules and parameters which combine to create a specific challenging environment in which we can play. The great advantage of these games is that the rules are able to cover all foreseeable situations which will arise, and can indeed bring such a situation specifically into existence.

In other games, such as my own Al Front! miniatures project set in the Spanish Civil War or, to a lesser degree, the Pacific Fighters game platform, the player is provided with a toolkit in the form of the system design with which they can then create individual scenarios in which to play. The joy of these systems is that they can be used to create a theoretically limitless number of games with which to entertain ourselves.

I want to write a bit about designing scenarios, because I believe the method and art of this is translatable across any game design in which they can be used. For decades I have been told that my scenarios are 'fun' because of their integration between story and game experience. This has been the case from Airfix and Matchbox 1:72 WWII games in the back shed in the seventies, to Traveller and Dungeons and Dragons in the early eighties to computer games of platoon level warfare on the Eastern Front in the nineties, to flying planes over the Pacific most recently (and a helluvalotofa games inbetween).

I think that by writing about the process of scenario creation I might become a bit more aware of the alchemy of the process, and thus be able to create better scenarios. I might also be able to give the odd reader who passes over these posts a few ideas they haven't yet had. And if I can do that, it will have been worth the effort.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Waiting for the bug

A lot of people come down with the flu during winter. That's what they mean when they say they've got "the bug". For me it is different. I get the wargaming bug.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

PF Community

It has pleased me no end to have had visits to this site from individuals connected with the online PF community. Wandalen from Norway and Linus from the US (?) have left messages, either here or on connected site. It's almost like a pleasant intrusion from cyperspace into RL (real life), from game into reality, making each of them that little bit more vivid.

I must say, the online PF community is a pretty supportive and comradely gang. When my wife surprises me and gets me IL46 I will be pleased to get a bit more serious again in the flying department. Until then, it's a bit of entertainment and a lot of learning.

4th PF Mission

I have developed a fourth mission in my PF Milne Bay Campaign - Aug 11 - three flights of kittyhawks scramble to head off incoming squadron of zeros and several Kate bombers.

This one took awhile to create. The allied airfields are becoming increasingly populated with tents, buildings and equipment and there is now a chain of radar stations along the the north coast. But, although it took awhile to do this, the bulk of my time was spent sorting out the actual planes.

I was basing it on actual events, when 12 zeros came in and were met by about 22 kittyhawks. I found if I organised it that way it was way too easy for the allies to knock down all the zeros. So I cut back the number of Kittyhawks. Now, the player's side is more likely to lose than win unless rapid and effective action is taken against the first flight of zeros, barrelling in on the airfields with their little 60 kg bombs.

Initially I had problems with the zeros dropping their load over the ocean and engaging the allied planes in a massive furball dogfight. That still happens with flights 2 and 3 of the zero, but I have made the lead flight come through low and early so that it won't react to the player's flight unless the player squarely locates and attacks them first.

I added the bombers, coming in 20 min after the zeros are scheduled, so that just when you think it's over there's another serious threat.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

3 PF Missions

I have been busy today. I somehow managed to find time to do a few things around the house while I rectified my first two Pacific Fighters scenarios (to make them 'historical', though the RNZAF Buffalo in the July 24 Mission is a flight of Anzac wargaming fancy). I also wrote a third mission, based upon the first air raid experienced on Gurney Field in the campaign (Aug 4). By the next scenario (Aug 7), radar will be operational - allowing a 20 v 12 P40 v Zero dogfight. It will be interesting to see how far I can push the amazing Full Mission Builder within the game engine.

Here's a flavour of what I've done so far:

July 24, 1942. Dusk. Brewster Buffalo scrambles from Gurney Field to catch high flying 'Emily' Recce plane.
July 26, 1600 hours. 2 P40 Kittyhawks head off to ambush 'Emily' over northern islands. Prowling Zeros.
Aug 4, 1630 hours. Patrol of Kittyhawks diverted to protect Gurney from raiding 'Val' divebomber plus zeros.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Milne Bay Campaign Update

I have now completed creating the second scenario in my series of Pacific Fighters missions set over Milne Bay (New Guinea) in 1942. In this mission the idea is to scramble in a Brewster Buffalo at dusk and try to catch a nosey high flying Japanese recce plane. Not easy to do without getting one's engine (at least) shot out. I have managed to do it, but had to crash land in a clearing in the jungle to survive.

Upon reading the chapter on the battle in the Official History (WARNING - 2 MB download here if you click) of the campaign I realise I've got a few of the details wrong, but am tempted to keep on going as the next few missions will merge with the reality of the actual campaign from about the next mission (that which I have just completed is a 'prelude'). From here on in, my pilots will fly Kittyhawks.

It takes quite a while to create a mission, and even longer to test it out (flying it a number of times on 'auto' to see that the parameters work, and then doing it manually to get the 'feel' of it).

Immersing myself as I have over recent months inbooks about flying, airwarfare and new guinea jungle warfare I am amazed at what those men (generally) went through.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Flight Update

Well. I've created the first mission of what will one day become my Milne Bay campaign. This mission combines an interception of Jap recce plane, and if the timing is right a dogfight with some raiding zeros over home airfield. I have flown it and managed to shoot down all three zeros (2 rookie, 1 veteran), followed by the inevitable crash landing on my own runway in the late afternoon. My flight leader took out the Recce plane. Good fun and engrossing.

Next mission will be a scramble to engage a raiding divebomber and its escort in the dusk. The one after that will be a search for, and the one after the bombing of, troop transports with invasion force bound for coast north of Milne Bay. After that, I'll be into the campaign proper as it has become known. All these scenarios are based upon air engagements by RAAF 75 and 76 squadrons.

My online experience has tailed off a bit at present - I was taking too many hits and not getting any of my own on target and even my generally robust ego was taking a battering as a result. I still pop on for an hour or two every few nights though, and my flying is improving.

Was nice to hear from you Linus, we have met online and I am Xenophonic.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Flight Update & Cricket Celebration

In the last 10 days I've probably flown nearly 20 hours. Nil kills (though have had guns on target several times). I have crashed far more often than I've been shot down, probably averaging 3 to 5 sorties per session. I have been flying P40 Ms. Now that Norwegian has gone from the PF lobby in Hyperlobby, almost all of these online jousting sessions have been over Hawaii (though last night flew over the Marianas for the first time). I have noticed a bit more 'vulching' recently - when 'vulchers' prey on planes taking off and landing (ie when least powerful and most vulnerable).

I have put maybe 10 hours into learning a bit about the Full Mission Builder, using the site linked in the sidebar. I am building small missions over Milne Bay, losely basing them on the historical experience of RAAF squadrons 75 and 76, flying Kittyhawks against Zeros and Vals, lots of ground and naval attacks. Milne Bay was the first time the Japanese were comprehensively beaten on land in WWII. It tends to be a bit overshadowed by the Kokoda legend. But that's another tale...

Have had a go trying to use the game to play online direct with Wayne. Not any luck, the client computer in the setup keeps 'timing out' instead of connecting. The computers are recognising each other, however, so I have tweaked a couple settings and maybe we'll have a bit more luck when we (hopefully) try again over the weekend.

Oh yeah - while talking about games I should say YIPEE for the Aussies winning the World Cup cricket (for the third consecutive time). And this after taking a clean sweep of the ashes test series against England over summer (first time in 80 years)! That is one awesome team, and as they retire one by one (Langer, Warne, McGrath, and the guy that just walked out saying he'd had enough after the first test [Damien Martin]) one gets the feeling it is the end of an era. Well done lads!