January 5, 2011

What Is Your Game About?

In the last few days, a number of games bloggers have asked about ‘what’s this game about?’ It’s a commonly asked question posed to game designers, and a fairly apt one considering we’re in a tightening market with fewer dollars available. The problem is, the context of the question will prove troublesome as there are many ways to answer the question.

The one cited by A.L. at Reality Refracted is the one posed most often by John Wick. To clarify, John Wick’s version of the question is intended to have a one word answer and is better asked as ‘what is the theme of your game?’ Now, I understand why he doesn’t use my terminology, for the same reason that the term theme needs to be clearly defined when that same question is asked of amateur writers.

The goal of Wick’s question seems to be to keep the designer focused on the point of the game, and not get lost in mechanics. This is absolutely a good goal, but I wonder if too much focus is a bad thing?

Getting so lost in your theme that even the player’s don’t know where to go gets you the question posed by Andreas Davour over at The Omnipotent Eye: What do you do in this game? He cites some very strong thematic games that fail to answer the question to presented. The mechanics can give the players an easy idea of where to go with your game. Leaving out ‘thematic’ mechanics in an effort to better guide the game play is definitely a good idea.

When I get the ‘what’s it about?’ question, I deliver what Randy Ingermason called a One-Sentence Summary. To summarize the first step of the snowflake method, a One-Sentence Summary is an attempt to encapsulate the entire plot of a novel in a single sentence.  As one sentence limits you in amount of detail, you are forced to boil down your concept to a single idea that can be expressed clearly. In a way, it’s a much freer version of Wick’s question.

In RPGs, the One-Sentence Summary would need to answer a few questions in as few words as possible:

Who do the player’s play?
What is the tone?
What is the conflict?

Without these three ingredients your summary is incomplete and doesn’t make for easy comparison between two products on a shelf. Remember my advice about simplifying mechanics to encourage certain types of game play? Same principle applies to your sales attempts. Make the decision as easy as possible in an effort to leave as little ‘guess’ left for your buyer.

FRE has a simple one sentence summary which is at the head of the rules:

FRE is simple system to help moderate freeform roleplay in any setting.

This gets the idea across succinctly, as it relies on the ‘freeform’ point. The players are whomever they like, the conflict is with whatever comes up, and the tone depends on how things are role played. That explanation aside, I do think I need to provide readers more focus on what the point of the engine is, and will probably include the key point (Conflict.) in the revised sentence I’ll put on the extended version of FRE.

When I was pitching Velocity to early playtesters, the sentence was:

Hovercar racing pilots dealing with underhanded rivals both on and off the track.

And Exosquad:

The first pilots of an experimental armored division fight a war to bring unity back to the solar system.

So, readers, what’s your game about?


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