People have been asking what I’ve been doing recently.
Call it video game detox. I’ve been pulling up fat handfuls of the roots of videogaming – board games, pen and paper roleplaying games, “live action” games – and chewing on them like some nerd herbivore.
While mobile gaming’s been continuing its frightening rise, I’ve been carrying 2 kilo board games to friends around London. While Mass Effect 3’s ending was shredded by gamers like so much pulled pork, I’ve been scribbling notes for my own 2300AD campaign. And while gamers are tapping their teeth in hesistant excitement for – what – Dishonoured? Bioshock Infinite? I’m trying to find the time to attend a Zombie LARP in an abandoned Redding shopping centre.
This isn’t me clawing at the jaws of a dinosaur as it goes bubbling down into a tar pit, either. Board game sales are actually increasing, year on year, and have been for more than a decade. Board games, would you believe it, seem to be coming back.
(Zombie LARP, by the way, is where you actually run away from actual guys pretending to be actual zombies, armed only with a pair of metaphorical balls and an actual Nerf gun.)
Now, in this post I’m not going to try and inspire you to take off your shirt and fling all your game consoles from the window. For that, we’d need you to visit my house, a crate of forty beers and a game of Memoir ’44: Overlord. In this post I just want to convey to you what’s exciting about analog game design itself.
Let’s start with me saying something nice and mad.
Technology, which is to say “digital” game design, is the single biggest obstacle game designers have ever faced.
The games industry is, in part, defined by a lust for new tech. Money has always found a home in a new console cycle, a new games platforms, a new graphics engine, a bigger game world, a more detailed game city, a more plausible AI, a new input device. These are all expectations sat on a AAA video game designer’s back before he’s typed the title of his design document.
But let’s take a step down, to the guys who are just working within existing formats rather than trying to push the envelope. There, technology still faces them with a horrific problem- if they can’t communicate their idea perfectly to the team of specialists required to turn that idea into a finished videogame, that idea is dead as sure as if it was suffocated by a beefy dude with some piano wire. If that doesn’t sound so hard, try writing the design document for Gears of War.
But let’s take yet another step down. Recently we’ve seen indie and mobile video games wandering into the spotlight with no make-up and no acceptance speech, having attained their success using only comparatively simple tech. Yet even in these cases the designer must still know how to code or how to transmit his vision to programmers, sound designers or whoever else. And if that doesn’t sound like much of a hurdle, let’s hypothesise that you had an amazing idea for a video game, but no programming experience. Imagine how far away that prototype would feel.
What we call “technology” is really a swimming pool so stuffed with sharks as to look like an undulating grey floor. It is this pool that ideas for video games must cross in order to exist. SNAP! goes a pair of jaws. The guns/punching/jumping in your game doesn’t feel satisfying. SNAP! The finished product is buggy. SNAP! You fail to assemble the finished project within the time or budget available to you. In a burst of foam and gore, your videogame is dragged down, down, through a gap in the shark mattress.
(Which is exactly why the “punk” movement within the indie scene is so exciting. Game designers using programs like GameMaker to make games with zero aesthetic appeal but a certain… heart, and purity of intent. Brendan Caldwell’s articles through that link kick ass, by the way. You should read them.)
But board games? With board games or card games, depending on how handy you are with a pair of scissors you can have a prototype up and running within hours. One of my favourite board games, Galaxy Trucker (which sees players racing to assemble spaceships in a 2D lego fashion before taking off in a heroic, rickety, doomed convoy), literally came to the designer in its entireity while he was taking a shower, and if he wanted to he could have been playtesting it the next day.
But we’re getting off track. The accessibility isn’t the point. The point is that this is lossless game design. There is no shark pit. When you buy a board game, what you take home and play is the original concept precisely as it was in the designer’s head. That’s the mecca for video games. For board games, it’s the norm.
Let’s put it another way. You walk into a video game store and the shelves heave with fuck-ups, almosts, wannabes, disasterpieces, train wrecks, never-gonna-happens and shovelware. Your eyes drift to the charts, the sequels, the games you know, but the actual ratio of directionless embarrassments to successfully implemented visions is horrific.
You walk into a board game shop (not your Cranium or Cluedo, I’m talking proper nerd board games) and every one of the games on the shelves is a human being’s shrinkwrapped idea. There are still disasterpieces, licensed cash-ins and cynical sequels, but for the most part you can walk to any part of the shop, stare dead ahead and find yourself staring at the five lovingly playtested dreams of five human beings.
And they are dreams. The cross that the board gaming hobby has to bear is that there’s no money in it. No fucker plays these things. Depending on the publisher, a board game selling 20,000 copies might be seen as a happy success. But what this does mean is that most every designer is doing it for the love.
And that’s just the start.
COMING UP NEXT, I’ll start getting specific, pointing out a few board games that’ll show how this hobby is a minefield, except instead of mines you’re endlessly stepping ideas that are as surprising as mines, but usually more fun. Then in a third article I’ll talk about the REAL reason you should be playing board games. Until then, probably just have a browse of Shut Up & Sit Down, my board game review site. We’re doing the hobby justice, I think.