Monday, April 17, 2006

lesson: teach someone how to play a game

Anyone who would create and market software should be required to teach someone how to play a game.

Not some dusty classic like Go or Backgammon or Chess. Or Jarts. I'm talking a modern board game. Something like Settlers of Catan. Or Devil Bunny Needs a Ham.

For those of you who are not familiar with the world of modern board games, go to Funagain Games and have a look around. Select any old game you see. Carcassonne is a good one, and pretty much guaranteed to show up on their front page.

Whatever game you select, scroll down. . . down. . . until you get to the reviews.

What you'll find are thoughtful, exhaustive, and generally entirely fair reviews of each of the games. Keep your eyes out for how reviewers describe the rules of each game - and what impact these rules have on something called "playability". But mostly I want you to read until you find an excellent review - one that attempts to not only say "what's good" and "what's not good", but one that gives you some insight into how to play.

Now think about the best games you've ever played - what they have in common are rules that are generally well-written, understandable and internally consistent. Even if they weren't, if you really liked to play, someone somewhere taught you. Remember that - now try to explain the rules of a game you know really well to someone who doesn't know those rules.

Think about where you start - at the beginning. What is the objective of the game? How many players? What are the pieces? What does the board look like? How do the different players interact?

But even before you get into all of that, before you said word one about the rules, you'd tell your listener that it was a "great game" that's "a lot of fun" or "very challenging" - and your enthusiasm would set the tone for the rules discussion to follow. Because honestly, who teaches someone to play a crappy game that's no fun?

If you were really smart, you'd have the game there - you'd lay it out, and show the pieces as you went along. You wouldn't go right into the "advanced rules", but you'd explain the basics.

I've done my share of teaching people how to play games, whether we're talking Cosmic Encouter, Carabande, Nuclear War (really) or something simple like Boggle and LCR. Each time, I've learned something new.

When you teach someone to play a game you cover all the important structural points that should go into good software, and good software marketing.
  • You start with why it's good, and why someone should be interested in playing.
  • You describe it's objective, and a basic idea about how to achieve that objective.
  • You start with basic rules, and make sure you're understood before you move on.
  • You add rules until you've described enough of them that the listener can play.
  • You give examples.
  • You add complexity as it is needed, but not at the expense of the basic game.
Then when it all makes sense, you start to play.

Good software should be clear, accessible, compelling and offer an objective worth playing for. A lot like a good game.

(In addition to web stores like Funagain and Boulder Games, you can discover some great games at manufacturer's sites like Cheapass Games, Steve Jackson Games, Mayfair Games, WizKids Games, Jolly Games, Flying Buffalo Games, Looney Labs and GMT Games. Then there are all the card games, and the miniature games, and don't forget the RPGs. . . and MMORPGs. . . then there's Cosmic Wimpout. And RoboRally. . .)

1 comment:

Ron said...

Games are better designed software than most software because game designers are far more in tune with the expectations/observational skills of their audiences. No formal methodologies come between designer and 'end user,' because that person is viewed as being much more like you, the designer, than some thing to be poked and prodded into analyzing a product.