Category Archives: Notes

Notes from PAX Prime 2015

I attended PAX Prime 2015 this past weekend with a friend, and ended up going to two talks.

Ask a Dungeon Master

Chris Perkins

  • Dungeon Masters are unique.
  • Gary Gygax
    • Had the players declare a “caller”, who was the only person to talk to the DM, who sat in an adjacent room.
  • Learn first by emulating existing DMs and running existing campaigns.
  • In older modules, location is key. In “modern” DMing, characters and politics are key.
    • The older modules are often named after the location, “crypt of the…”
  • Chris learned a lot from a few TV shows
    • Star Trek: The Next Generation
      • Character-Driven story
      • Focus on teamwork and character development
      • Episodic content with a repeating cast
      • Some episodes are standalone, while others feed a larger arc
      • In a serialized story, each character has an arc and needs to grow
      • Don’t introduce characters and then not allow them to shine for at least a moment
        • Give everyone a journey
      • Characters:
        • We know nothing about them
        • Choices are made
        • Shit happens
        • Now we know a lot about them
        • (They might not make it to that final step)
    • West Wing
      • Q: How did Aaron Sorkin make politics so interesting?
        • A: Have three or four things going on at the same time
        • Make it overwhelming so that the characters must make choices
        • Give quests with political importance
        • If one conflict gets boring, make sure there are others at the same time to fall back on
    • Buffy
      • (No notes?)
  • Storytelling is the art of using narrative to elicit an emotional response
    • PCs get attached to things. NPCs, Locations, Items.
      • But they can only get attached if those things have personality
  • Let characters make “real” choices and deal with the consequences
  • DMing is challenging as storytelling because it is performed LIVE
  • Constantly Improvising
    • (Here, Chris plugs Acquisitions, Inc.)
    • There are no (or, very few) takebacks in DMing
      • Remember what NPCs sound like!
  • Chris’ evolution of a DM:
    • Run published campaigns
    • Write your own campaigns
    • Improvise everything
      • This takes practice!
  • Good DMs…
    • Have fun!
    • Don’t over-prepare
    • Roll with the punches
    • Don’t fret about the rules
    • When in doubt, just say yes!
  • If everyone dies, call it a night
    • Death is the beginning of another story
  • Tricks
    • Hoard Maps
    • Use the Three-Story Arc
      • (Example)
        • The heroes need to find a route out of the underdark
        • There are drow kidnapping surface dwellers
        • There are spore-infested creatures
      • All three of these storylines are happening at the same time, the players bump into them as they move through the dungeon
    • Write things as episodes
      • Use episodic recaps to remind your players what happened last time, on D&D…
    • Chris prepares each session as a one-sheet summary
      • What is the basic outline of the episode
      • What are all the notable NPCs that the PCs might run into
      • What major events will probably happen during this episode?
    • There is nothing you can do wrong with NPCs. Give them EMOTION
    • Ask the players what they want!
      • (It’s their game too!)
      • Example Qs:
        • Magic Item wish list
        • Campaign Knowledge wish list
        • Accomplishment wish list
    • Use foreshadowing
      • The players will try to connect things even if you don’t purposely foreshadow.
      • So do it purposely!
    • Imagine an actor to play each NPC if you want a handy way to remember
  • Traps
    • Over-Preparation
      • Your PCs will never go where you expect. And if they do, you’re…
    • Railroading
    • Rules Inconsistency
    • Time Travel
      • (You think it’s fun, but experienced DM’s know, it’s a recipe for disaster)
    • Things players hate
      • Don’t do them!
    • “Me vs Them” attitude
      • Remember, you’re all on the same side – everyone just wants to have fun!

So, You Want to be a Game Writer

Toiya Finley (Schnoodle Media), Qais Fulton (Freelance), Anne Toole (The Write Toole), Bobby Stein (ArenaNet), Tom Abernathy (Massive Entertainment), Leah Miller (Carbine Studios)

  • Q: Even if you do understand storytelling, what should you know about game writing?
    • Average text length in games is decreasing
      • Avg length of text in Wildstar: tweet length (140 char)
    • Know the audience and technology. What works in the game?
    • These are interactive and nonlinear stories.
      • Sequence and Timing go out the window.
    • Don’t make your stories linear. Make them player-centric.
    • The player cares about “my story”, not “your story”.
    • They should have the choice of how to play the character
    • “The player’s story will trump whatever heartfelt thing you write [for NPCs]”
    • Designers and programmers will do their own thing with your story. You have to deal with their requests. It’s writing in a team setting.
      • Know how to communicate with the people who are actually building the game, to keep them in sync
  • Q: Game writing is competitive. How do I get a job?
    • “It’s like breaking out of prison. Once you figure out your path, it’s probably not going to work again.”
      • Try not to copy existing successes. Make your own.
    • Some companies you can start out at the bottom and work your way up to writer over years.
      • Many others, you can’t – you have to get hired in at the top
    • (Ed note, this is good job advice for any field!)
    • Work on your own projects. Have a portfolio that you can show people.
      • Have it online.
      • Make sure it’s recent
      • Work consistently
    • Practice your “Story Sense”
    • If you want to make your own games, you don’t want to be a writer. You want to be a Creative Director
    • Check out text-based game engines
      • Twine
      • Inform7
      • Episode Interactive
      • Pen & Paper RPGs
    • Play with level editors so that you know what the developers are working with
  • Q: Portfolio? What should I showcase?
    • Genre diversity!
      • Have some horror, action, humor, etc.
    • No two employers want the same thing
      • Aim for around 2-3k word games for your portfolio pieces
        • That said, have lots of different length material. Every company wants something different
        • “Short, concentrated awesome”
      • Dialogue Samples
      • Lore Documents
      • Technical game design documents readable by non-writers
    • Know the types of games the company makes, and tailor your portfolio to them
    • Don’t assume the company knows anything about (good) writing
    • Copyright theft is real!
      • Use watermarked PDFs
      • Only post samples
      • Protect yourself against plagiarism
  • Join the IGDA
    • Int’l game devs assoc
      • Writers’ interest group
        • Facebook group
  • In meeting people, it’s more important to have an interesting conversation, than to “network”
    • Make friends, not contacts
  • Q: Freelancing v Employment
    • It’s good to have at least one staff job on your resume, esp. if you did “the trenches” (crunch, ship)
    • Freelancer, you also have to be a salesperson. Always be selling your writing
      • Read marketing books, sales books
      • You’ll also have to be a collections agent
        • Don’t work for free
        • You can get consistent work, but it won’t be consistent money
    • Don’t be afraid to fire bad clients
    • Make “work for hire” agreements
    • Full Time:
      • Benefits!
      • Work at an office (external motivation)
      • Structure!
      • But: They own you
      • Be aware of your self
      • Better mentorship opportunities
      • Get pushed into weird projects (which is great for experience!)
      • At a smaller place, you can make things happen!
        • Just talk to the CEO
      • When you work on staff through crunch, you become really good friends (which turn into really good contacts after you leave)
      • If you work at a large company, make sure you make friends with people outside your small team. You have an opportunity to get a large network. Use it!
      • Remember that personal work done at work (Even if not on the clock) belongs to them. They own it. Be careful about how/when you work on personal projects.
        • Or, just pitch your ideas to them and see them get made!
      • Know your rights
  • Q: How do I write?
    • Write!
    • Just write. Don’t be attached to your writing.
    • Work back and forth with the developers and designers
    • Write shitty first drafts
      • You’ll have time to revise
      • You’ll have people to get feedback from
    • Be prepared for blunt feedback and people who don’t understand your intent
    • Be prepared to admit failure, but have some confidence, Know your strengths and weaknesses.
    • When you’re working on a game, everyone is on your side. (They all want the game to be good!)
    • Be prepared to throw everything out and start over
  • In games, don’t tell, don’t show, do.
    • Let the players learn organically through the environment, instead of trying to cram instructions into words.

Notes from PAX East 2015 (Part 3 / 3 – Dungeon Mastering)

I went to PAX East 2015! It was awesome! I took a lot of notes!

(Part 1: Social Stuff)
(Part 2: Making & Selling Games)

Here are the notes from the one talk that I went to on being a good Game Master.

Playing Between The Lines

Luke Crane, Adam Koebel, Sage LaTorra, Thor Olavsrud

  • DMs are authoritative. (this is bullshit)
  • DMs enforce a social contract.
  • DMs organize & wrangle humans
  • Prep
    • Creating Scenarios
    • Homework
    • Game Design
    • “Lonely Fun”
      • The DM who creates adventures that will never be run. And has a great time doing it.
  • Prep in the most minimal way possible.
  • Find and create things that will drive action.
  • The GM is expected to always be thinking about the game. (this is also bullshit)
  • What does prep look like for…
    • D&D
      • Reading
      • Research
      • Environment Building
      • Narrative Stuff
    • The Great Pendragon Campaign
      • Reading Le Morte D’Arthur
      • Reading about the current period and year
      • Tying in past family events and scandalous rumors
    • Dogs in the Vineyard
      • Towns, Sins, Demons, People, Relationships, Mormons, Guns
      • Play a GM Minigame to create the campaign (Lonely Fun)
      • Use their system for “creating problems”
    • The Burning Wheel
      • Building Characters
      • Developing Relationships, both oppositional and supportive
      • Challenging Beliefs
    • Dungeon World
      • Make shit up
      • Wave hands like muppet
      • Talk in funny voices
      • Buy more copies of Dungeon World [note: the publisher of D.W. was on the panel]
  • 90% of DMing is making shit up (improv)
  • Building a cool world:
    • If you are playing a game with characters, you need to build the map in personal terms instead of locational terms.
    • Your campaign doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Learn to build external media into your campaign. Steal from pop culture. Don’t worry about it as long as it’s fun.
    • Read A Wizard of EarthSea
      • Names are magical. They give things solidity. Going after a +3 broadsword is way less cool than going after Sunbrand, Sword of the Western Hills
      • Use language dictionaries. “What langauge is magic performed in?” (mongolian!)
  • Have a folder.
    • Name List
    • Map
    • Notes
    • (JIT DM)
    • Collaborate in worldbuilding with the players
  • Character (NPC) prep:
    • Use the rules. Then fudge the rules.
    • Build opposition to the characters
    • The axiom of antagonists: “They have something appalling that they want, but use methods that the players approve of” or “They have something good that they want, but use appalling methods to achieve it
    • Then take it a step further and make sure the antagonist wants something from the PCs.
  • For any character in the game, you should have 3 things that describe them.
  • Story:
    • Relationship Maps! (example)
    • NPCs should have reactions to player events.
      • “What does your NPC dad think of what your PC is doing?”
      • “What do the rest of the goblins do after you’ve killed their king?”
    • Behind the scenes, or indirect action.
  • rtfm
  • Game Mastering is Learned, Not Borned
    • Skills, not genetics
    • These skills can be taught
    • Anyone can become a GM if they’re not afraid

Notes from PAX East 2015 (Part 2 / 3 – Making & Selling Games)

I went to PAX East 2015! It was awesome! I took a lot of notes!

(Part 1: Social Stuff)
(Part 3: Dungeon Mastering)

Here are the notes from the “how to make and sell games” type talks.

Business Basics for Indies

Dan Adelman

This talk is mostly about video, not board games

  •  Business Strategy
  • Also: What are the barriers to entry?
    • Indie games have a low barrier to entry
    • Marginal Revenue (selling one more copy) > Marginal Cost (making one more copy)
      • Marginal Cost is 0 for video games (i.e. it is free to sell a copy. Thus selling at any price = profit). Except not.
      • Everyone can undercut, leading to a race to the bottom
        • 99 cents is expensive when your competition is free
  • Adelman’s Law of the Games Industry: “Anyone in the games industry to make money is in the wrong place.”
  • Marketing: Helping people who would love your game, find out about your game (not spammy!)
  • Product  Quality of product
    Differentiation from competitors
    Audience Expectations
    Internal Consistency (art, music, gameplay, marketing all aiming for the same audience).
    Know where your customers are
    What platforms are excited about your game? (They will give you free publicity)
    Where does your game belong?
    PROMOTION  Where does your core audience get their information?
    Establish a relationship with journalists. But! If you are at the point that you need to establish a relationship with a journalist to market your game, you’re too late.
    Price Low low low but don’t undersell yourself. This is tricky.
    Announce in advance when your price will drop so customers don’t feel cheated
    Examine the competition carefully
    Check your audiences’ disposable income
  • The 4 P’s must fit together and be internally consistent; point to the same consumers.
  • Negotiation: Know these words.
    • Specifically, make sure you understand “BATNA”, “Logrolling” vs “Fixed Pie”
  • Never be afraid to ask for a better deal than they offer. Raising your money per game from $2 to $4 doubles your profits and takes a 5 minute discussion if they’re willing.
  • Practice negotiation. Roleplay, rehearse. Make it a conversation. Remove ego.
  • (You have to work with them afterward. If either side gets heated during negotiation, is this really a partnership you want?)
  • Get to know people before you need them (see: Promotion, above). But don’t be disingenuous!
  • Everyone will remember everything you say. Good and bad.
  • Everyone starts at the bottom.

Heads Up: the Art of Interface and Graphic Design in Video Games

Vicki Ebberts, Alexandria Neonakis, Kate Welch, Eric Monacelli

  • Read this article by Anthony Stonehouse
  • Fiction Geometry Notes Example
    Diagetic Yes Yes You and the character can see the same information, in the same way. Pip Boy
    Meta Yes No In-game elements “seen by the character” projected against the 2D HUD Plane Blood Splatter
    Spatial No Yes Elements that you see, that exist in the game world, that are invisible to the character. Floating Money
    Non-Diagetic No No The classic “HUD”, which is removed from the game world and doesn’t exist in the game fiction. WOW HUD
  • New UI problems will present themselves in nontraditional games.
    • Oculus rift is going to be AWESOME AND WEIRD AND INTERESTING
    • Hearthstone is already breaking this model – the entire game is a user interface – there’s almost no “fiction”.
  • What do companies look for in designers?
    • Graphic Design
      • Ability to organize information in a smart way.
      • Ability to organize information in a hierarchy clearly.
    • Being aware of what’s new and fresh, and also what’s out of date
    • Fail a lot and don’t give up
    • Ability to think like a user of any product
  • Process
    • Get clear goals. What problem are we trying to solve? How does this help the player?
    • Sketch out ideas on paper. Don’t discriminate against bad ideas.
    • Whiteboard user flow. Confirmations. Transisions! User Feel. Buttons.
    • Wireframe. Prototype anything new/risky/tricky. Use physical paper to prototype quickly.
  • Pair. Work with a developer until things feel right. User test frequently!
  • If anyone is noticing your UI, then it’s probably in their way.
  • In AAA Shooters, the UI is not the content. In nontraditional games (hearthstone), the UI is the content.
  • Watch playthroughs on youtube to find elements that work well. But make sure it works in your game.
  • Just go on twitter and search #UX and #UI. See what happens.

 Do You Have What it Takes to Publish an Indie Board Game?!

Breeze Grigas, Jeff Gracia, Sarah Como, Eli Kosminsky, Aerjen Tamminga, Luke Peterschmidt

  • Basically the answer to most of your questions is kickstarter but this isn’t a kickstarter panel so we’re going to assume you know that.
  • Why do you want to make games? Is it to quit your job? Make something with your friends? Check “make a board game” off your list?
  • ^^ Answer that question before going further.
  • As a publisher, what is your product line.
  • You don’t need a finished product to approach a publisher. It just needs to play, and show the core idea. You must make it. Test It!
  • If you decide to self publish, you’re going to spend 80% of your time not making games. You’ll spend 80% of your time publishing, and then 100% of your time selling.
  • Remember that the publisher takes the risk.
  • Retail price should be 5x creation cost.
    • 2/5 Retailer
      1/5 Distributor
      1/5 Publisher -> 1/5 of that to you
      1/5 [??? didn’t write this down]
    • Example: $210k kickstarter, had to spend $80k in shipping (incl. international).
  • Find your local game developer cabal and ask them.
  • Go to the Unpub Convention in Florida.
  • “Design toward what you can do”, “Pick something you can execute on”.
  • Get to know Board Game Geek.
  • Read The Characteristics of Games
  • Read The Design of Everyday Things
  • Playing bad games is a great way to make good games.
  • Play games that people love but you don’t like. (“Read 50 Shades, and figure out why it sells. You don’t have to love the actual product to learn something from it”)
  • Give your game to other people, then just sit back and watch! (Blind Playtesting).
  • Three Questions that you should be able to answer for your fictional character in the game / player character in the game:
    • Who are you?
    • What do you do?
    • How do you win?
  • Immersive Gameplay (top down design) > Canvasing (same rules, different art)
  • Listen to Mark Rosewater’s Podcast.
  • Playtest with new people. But also make sure to playtest with the same group for a few times so that they figure out the strategy of your game.
  • You want to hear: “This is fun, and I’d like to play it again.”
  • Play with other designers, and be able to answer their questions about why you didn’t make certain decisions.
  • You can go for an LLC or just a DBA (“Do Business As”). Actually, just get a deleware C Corp. (srsly).
  • YOU WILL PROBABLY SPEND ABOUT $10,000 BEFORE YOU GET TO MARKET. Have this money ready to go when you go to publish.
  • Have a “red button gamer” play your game. (rbg is someone who just wants to blow things up and see what happens – they’ll have different strategies and tactics and might find new ways your game is broken).
  • Go to your local game store with your game
    • Get the best local M:TG players to play your game. They will break it. Retool. Have them play it again. They will break it again. Repeat until it takes them “long enough” to break your game.
  • (Game design tip: Blind Bid events even out the game).
  • Think about weight for shipping!
  • Check out the GameCrafter site.

Birthing Board Games: From Conception to Maturity

Timothy Blank, Donald Mitchell, Lauren Woolsey, Phil Cartagena

  • Find your local game maker’s guild. Join it.
  • Games are made of: Concept, Theme, Components, Mechanics
  • “A good game gives its players interesting choices” — Sid Meier

[this panel wasn’t particularly information dense!]



Notes from PAX East 2015 (Part 1 / 3 – Social Stuff)

I went to PAX East 2015! It was awesome! I took a lot of notes!

(Part 2: Making & Selling Games)
(Part 3: Dungeon Mastering)

Here are the notes from the “social media / dealing with people” type talks.

Enabling Co-Op Mode

Tracy Hurley, Christine Chung, Georgia Dow

  • Social Identity Theory
    • We need to form groups to survive. We want to protect our group. We like to form an identity with out group. We form “ourselves”, and “belong” to the ingroup. The outgroup is the “other”.
    • We protect our identity as part of our own self-esteem. We think of our ingroup as better than they really are.
    • Now we have globalization which goes against this.
    • Actors in Planet of the Apes took to ingroups that matched their ape costumes.
    • Power and Identity
      • Conflict due to differences in identity
    • It’s the self-esteem connection to identity and connection to in-group (views) that is “the problem”
    • Cognitive Dissonance
    • Social Resources
      • What are they?
    • One of the things to do is contact, actually meet the outgroup to realize that they are more diverse. We see our ingroup as diverse but the outgroup as monolithic stereotypes. (“varied” / “unrealistic” )
    • Just putting people in the same place doesn’t work, but getting them to work together does.
    • Replace the “instance” of the outgroup with an actual human being.
    • Use gaming to reinforce, or, hopefully, break down these stereotypes.
      • Stereotype break down is not about repetition but about diversity of experiences with “The other”
      • Aggressiveness breeds aggressiveness.
    • We want to be seen and accepted. We want our feelings to be seen and accepted.
    • Remember that some [trolls] may be upset about something else.
      • Don’t build up ammo
      • Aim your weaponry, just not at each other
      • Accept that you do not have to agree, to win
      • We don’t have to be right
      • We want peace, space, and reception, if not agreement
    • Look for common ground (what do both people care about?)
    • People who are uncomfortable with uncertainty are more likely to end up in conflict.
    • Use “I” statements, not “You” statements [when dealing with trolls]. Also pay attention to body language (this doesn’t translate well online).
    • Accountability.
    • Don’t feed the trolls?
      • The trolls aren’t ususally actually upset about *this*, but this is the forum in which they express the anger.
      • Games as *escape*, to get away from other *anger*, which follows them into the game.
      • Remember that you’re not just speaking to the troll but also the audience. So make sure you speak in a way that brings people together, not divides them.
      • Pause, wait, breathe, calm down before posting.

Player Select: Identifying with our virtual selves (video)

Alexa Ray Corriea, Neha Tiwari, Mitch Dyer, Elisa Melendez, Mike Laidlaw

  • Background Reading One: Leveling Up for Dummies
  • Background Reading Two: The Proteus Effect
  • More attractive avatars walked closer and divulged more information in game
  • People rarely (3%) create “scary” or “unattractive” avatars
  • Men trended toward average avatars, women toward attractive avatars.
  • Katrina Fong is doing cool research. Also Aria Bendix.
  • People who are comfortable with themselves don’t have such strong tendencies to create heroic or beautiful avatars.
  • Character creation is intentional.
  • Convince the player that the relationship is real and not the result of some systems.
  • Samantha Traynor is a good example of a character who breaks the “sex as reward” system (for male Shep) by turning him down no matter his advances.