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January 10, 2010

Game Design Is Murder, Part III

As I mentioned in part one, this concluding article in a mini-series of posts addresses how the following years' mysteries applied lessons learned from the first year. In the final three years, I continued to push the archetypes and find ways to innovate a little bit, which is important when you return to a similar experience again and again.

2000: A Fire Upon the Thames

A Fire Upon the Thames took the series in a bit of an innovative direction, in that everyone in the group was actually a victim... but they didn't know it. I reached back a bit to the Victorian era for my characters (a chimney sweep, scullery maids and various sorts of help, as well as the genteel family hosting a dinner party), and as host was an Indian swami who was hoping to contact mystical spirits to learn who had started a fire in the house. In reality, it was 100 years later, and the swami was in fact conducting a seance.

  • It has to start with a hook. This particular year I was aiming to produce a very specific emotion in my participants best exemplified by the moment in The Sixth Sense when Bruce Willis' character realizes the truth about himself, and has a moment of almost madness, turning around on that staircase, and I wanted to achieve it in basically the same way. I managed to achieve this in full with at least one guest, who realized how meticulously the series of events had been constructed and whose mind was fully blown. 
  • Give the players ample direction. Although they weren't completely conscious of it at the time, I dropped anachronisms into the swami's dialog so that the clues were there. The nice thing was that these were generally dismissed as mistakes by the author but were in fact clues.

2001: Murder in Iambic Pentameter

Of my years of writing these, I would have to say that this was my triumph, my absolute favorite and the favorite of many of my attendees.

  • It has to start with a hook. My hook was that all the scripted parts would be written in pentameter, including the rules (which I think I wrote as a sonnet), befitting the theme, which was Shakespearean. Shakespeare, the host, was dead -- murdered by one of his creations. The central conceit of the mystery was that we lived in a world where Shakespeare's creations also lived, but that their lives were manipulated by his scripts. At the time of his death, he was rumored to be working on a new play, a comedy, which used several of the characters from his tragedies... making all of them suspects, because none of them would want to be treated so lightly. We had Othello, Desdemona, Hamlet, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Gildenstern, Romeo and Juliet, and the MacBeths, if memory serves. The storyline and the delivery were the real innovations here -- I had previously not crossed over into what was clearly fantasy (though to some degree with the ghosts in A Fire Upon the Thames).
  • New item: Players will surprise you. My Moor came in blackface. My Rosencrantz and Gildenstern were dead -- well, sick, and therefore unable to make the dinner. However, Hamlet stepped up and played the parts of Rosencrantz and Gildenstern in addition, as sock puppets! It was perfect, because in my story, only a madman would kill his creator, and Hamlet was clearly mad. Getting fully into character and adapting to changes that would have really sunk the plot any other year was a tremendous boon.

2002: Hercules' Homecoming

The last year we turned fully to fantasy in the form of Greek myth. Hercules was in Olympus when he was felled by a bolt of lightning -- clearly, that pointed to Zeus, but it happened in Zeus' trophy room where implements for throwing lightning were kept, and Hercules, being struck down (though still present as a ghost -- having forgotten the last hours of his life) was unable to give any useful information. The Gods set to bickering...

  • The Hook. I came up with this entirely on the basis of having never been to a toga party, and between this and some sort of Animal House knock-off...
  • Keeping it fresh. The story/mystery innovation here was that it was effectively a locked-room mystery, with a rather simple solution. Hercules as victim turned out also to be the killer! Having thrown a thunderbolt in such a way as to catch Zeus' shield and something else (robe, perhaps) and hit himself with it. Hercules started off the evening with a bang, by lurching into the room where the guests had gathered and dying in their presence, a series first.

Well, that's about all I have. Part of the goal of this was to remind people that game design can be done fairly simply -- boardgames, certainly, but even one-off experiences like these take planning, design and creative writing, all great skills for designers to exercise.

As it turns out, I have one more of these mysteries left in me, one final innovation. I'm thinking I'll wait until my boys are a year or two older before I spring it on everyone...

Posted by Brett Douville at 08:52 PM | Comments (0)

January 06, 2010

Game Design Is Murder, Part II

As I mentioned in the first part, the remaining parts of this little mini-series of posts will address how the following years' mysteries applied lessons learned from the first year.

As time went on, I became more adept at constructing the mysteries so that writing didn't take as long. Part of this was the lessons learned from the first post, but there were also benefits to be had from not having to recreate templates for each of the different types of documents I gave out (clues, participant booklets, and the like), which leads to our first tip from the "sequels".

  • Don't reinvent the wheel. Sure, I fiddled with fonts and presentation a bit from year to year, but basically? The files I used the first year returned every year, but with different content. For these mysteries, the content was the important thing -- not the way the booklets were laid out. In this case, they weren't broken, so I didn't fix them. It's often tempting as designers (and also as programmers, who have a tendency towards Not-Invented-Here-itis) to revisit something you've done before and perhaps even scrap it entirely, but until it either shows its age (by being unable to support new requirements) or is the area in which you intend to take a sequel further, leave it be.

1998: Death's Disco

  • Item 0: Focus on the fun. As this was set in the seventies, the era of disco, we got to bring in a bunch of archetypes from that time, from hippies/folk fans to heavy metal/rock to older Lawrence Welk fans to, of course, the disco types. I can remember a character named Lenny Hustle, and I know there were some based on real singers (maybe a Jean Bayou?). Though the menu from that evening is not something I remember, I know that we played a lot of disco, including the complete soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever¹.

  • Item 1: It starts with a hook. In the second year, the mystery involved the death of a disco dancer, and I started from a sort of mental image of something you might see in Police Squad: the dead man's chalk outline on the floor in the shape of John Travolta's classic pose. That was it, that's all I started with, and it was enough to keep me amused. That said, this is perhaps the mystery about which I remember the least; I don't recall who the victim was, nor the killer, so the hook, while amusing to me, probably wasn't sufficient to justify a full mystery. It was still a good time for all, but less memorable than the others at least in terms of plot.

  • Item 3: You *can* have too much content. As I mentioned in the last post, in this and all subsequent years, I reduced the number of accusations per character to one accusation and one response.

This was the first year I dropped liberal hints into the flow of the game to indicate how the murder could be solved. This is one of the 400 rules, I believe:

  • Give the players ample direction. It didn't help anyone nail down the murderer, I don't think, but multiple times the homicide detective in charge of the case (i.e. myself, the host) would remind the characters that means, motive and opportunity were going to determine the killer. Only someone who had all three could be the killer. In each subsequent year, I would drop such hints directly into the scripts.

1999: Gold Rush Garrote

This was a Western theme with a lot of broad humor; it involved the death of a young man who was the brother of the sheriff who was soon to arrive in a Gold Rush-era town.

  • Focus on the fun. We had all of the traditional Western types, lone cowboys, dastardly outlaws, crazy old men ("Cooter McGee", my uncle, who went without shaving for a week to look the part), prostitutes and madams, barkeeps, merchants, even the piano player from the local cathouse. Familiar archetypes (even clichés) are key if you are doing one-off fun productions such as these. 
  • It starts with a hook. The hook was that I was going to borrow a page from Sherlock Holmes, and be "in disguise" throughout the evening as a Chinese manservant who had come ahead of the sheriff to ready his home. In actuality, I was the sheriff himself and revealed my identity at the very end of the game. Prior to the mystery dinner, I shaved my goatee into a Fu Manchu and as dessert was prepared, I shaved the remainder off and kept my face low, mostly obscured by a conical hat² I had worn as part of my costume.

A new item from this year relates to the hook:

  • Keep it fresh. Each year I tried to stretch what our participants could expect from the evening, to add a little spark and pizazz to the types of plots they could expect. While they always used elements that were drawn from classic mysteries, I tried to change up what was actually going on, in this case, with the host actually being a different character in disguise. Having a big reveal at the end made for a big splash, and kept the games from getting stale.

I expect the final entry to come in the next few days, when I'll cover the remaining three mystery dinners I wrote, as well as my absolute favorite (and one I suspect that was the favorite of others as well), as well as why I came to write these posts...

¹For the record, Saturday Night Fever is an absolutely terrific movie even if it is set in discos in Brooklyn. Travolta is amazing in what is essentially a coming-of-age story. (back)

²Thanks to a friend, James Zhang, who had actually brought it back from China with him on a visit, if I recall correctly. I was authentic! (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at 09:33 PM | Comments (2)

January 02, 2010

Game Design Is Murder, Part I

Although I spend much of my time as a programmer, and not as a designer, nonetheless I like to think I've contributed to the design of most of the games I've shipped. But I actually managed to ship 6 games in which I was the sole writer/designer and indeed, also served as the live team, which I'll explain. They weren't computer or videogames, but nonetheless I learned a few things from doing them that I thought I'd share.

A little back-story: On New Year's Eve, December 31, 1996, my then wife and I hosted friends for an evening of murder. At some point, I had been given one of those Host a Mystery in a box games. I don't remember the specific title or really anything of the plot, but I do recall that it was set on Maui, and so a group of eight of us got together to enjoy pineapple, fruity drinks, luau-style food, and a few laughs while the story played out over a few hours and courses. I don't think a single one of us got the murderer right, or at the very least, not for the right reasons¹. In any case, it was a good time, and the evening stuck in the back of my mind.

Over the course of the next year, a few things led me to host another for my family, a gathering that would turn out to be 13 people, myself included. At that size, buying a boxed set was out of the question, and that left me only with the option to write one myself. I've been reading mystery novels and short stories for ages, cut my teeth on Encyclopedia Brown and Sherlock Holmes in my early youth and never looked back. Anyway, so began the first of several little game design projects, one a year for the next six years.

The following items come from things I thought about and learned that first year.

  • Item 0: Fun is foremost. It's worth repeating again and again: focus on the fun. I had done a couple of these before as both host and participant, and had been involved with role-playing for years, so I had a sense of what would work and what wouldn't. A variety of familiar character types and a healthy leavening of humor, with lots of interaction were the key. It wasn't even all that important that anyone solve the mystery, but the clues had to be there and the story had to be something that could be unraveled, if one were paying attention, because some players really enjoy that sort of thing. Liberal glasses of wine don't hurt either ;)

    I made every attempt to include fun at every step of the process, from names to the night in question. The title of the murder was "Murder fra Diavolo", owing to the theme, and the characters included Al Cappuccino, Ed Spresso, Gina Amaretto, to name a few, and myself, the chef, Scorchy Vanilli. Once there, I wore an enormous red chef's toque and had music from Big Night playing (along with some opera courtesy of my father's collection), to help further set a whimsical tone.

  • Item 1: It has to start with a hook. Investing a bunch of hours into this sort of project (it would take me approximately 80 to prepare the first, not counting the night in question, with six hours of cooking), one needs to find a hook that will hold your interest long enough to want to deliver on it, and keep you motivated.

    My first hook came from a film I had seen that year, Big Night. At the time, I didn't know I wanted to host a murder, but after seeing that timpano, I knew I had to make one some day. When a timpano recipe appeared in the New York Times Magazine², the wheels started in motion. I needed a celebration to make such an enormous dish, which got me thinking about New Year's Eve, which got me thinking about the New Year's Eve prior...

  • Item 2: Plan, plan, plan... until planning gets in the way. Based on the boxed set I had, it seemed reasonable to have every player make two accusations and respond to two accusations; more about that in the next item. Based on that, though, I didn't want to have any one person accuse the same person twice in the game; in some cases, I wanted the responder to counter with an accusation the following round, just to give a sense of continuity. Balancing that all out is important, and planning enough of this stuff before I started figuring out what the actual clues were was important.

    However, making a sensible story from basically a set of diagrams is difficult, and you have to work the problem from both sides; figure out what your story is independent of who's going to say what to whom, if you can, and then look for opportunities to wire the two together.

    In the end, I ended up having to replumb the diagrams based on the coherence of the story, and rebalance as I went. This wasn't terrible, but I did end up redoing a fair amount of work as I tried to keep to the rules I had set for myself.

  • Item 3: You *can* have too much content. Twenty-four accusations per round is a lot of content to assimilate; having people figure out what was going on from that was more than they could reasonably handle. In this case, I think a little more thought up-front would have helped dramatically. Based on this, I switched to a one accusation/one response per person per round in future years, which was a significant improvement. That said, people really got into the role-playing aspect of these games -- they just couldn't reasonably figure out who the murderer was with all that information being thrown at them.

  • Item 4: Props are fun... In a boardgame, or interaction game like this, props are good. I brought notepads and pens with me to the gathering so that people would have an opportunity to take ample notes if they wanted to. People were encouraged to dress the part, and in invitations sent out a month or so before the big night, their characters were described to them. It was a mob theme, a marriage between the children of two Mafia families, the Spressos and the Cappucinos, with the groom having been murdered, so it was familiar enough that folks could reasonably make costumes without significant outlay. Additionally, each participant would produce a Special Clue at some point during the evening, which might be a receipt for something, a photo, a newspaper article, that sort of thing. These Clues helped reinforce the play and lended further realism.³

  • Item 5: ... but be clear on the dividing line between fact and fiction. Unfortunately, that year the identity of the murderer hinged on a real physical trait of one of the participants, which didn't go well with at least one of the players, as it blurred the line too much. Although other evidence pointed in that person's direction, the fact that distinguished that particular person was a trait in the real world. If I were to do it again, I would have had the writing reinforce that fact to enter it into evidence, as it were.

In the subsequent articles in this series, I'll describe each of the murder mysteries and how the rules I learned along the way applied. Check back in a few days or so for the next installment. Regrettably, my electronic copies of these games appear to be lost, but I'll keep digging around to see if I can find them on a backup disk or CD.

¹This was actually the second time we had done something like that, I'm now recalling. We also had a group of friends over a few years previous for a similar evening with a Star Trek: The Next Generation theme. (back)
²Cue collective groan from my friends, who have probably heard me say "I think I read about it in the New York Times Magazine" about eleventy billion times over the last 15 years... (back)
³Which seems particularly helpful now, in retrospect, considering some of the atrocious accents we had around the table each year...(back)

Posted by Brett Douville at 02:36 PM | Comments (1)

January 01, 2010

Where the Time Goes, Part II

or, The Year We Watched Too Much TV

As I did last year, I kept track this year of how much stuff I watched, read, and played over the past year.

The big surprise, looking at the numbers/lists, was just how much TV I watched this year, which is particularly surprising considering I do not have cable and no television reception to speak of¹. Instead, I have a Netflix subscription, which allows me both to receive movies and seasons of TV in the mail and to stream whatever's available on the service.

The other big event this year is that I jumped into the latest generation with both feet, buying myself a 360 Elite and a high-def television back in May or so. That has led to many many hours of games but also television and movies, via the Netflix streamer on the 360.

Anyway, here are the numbers:

  • 139 films, or more accurately, as last year, 139 film or video experiences. This seems starkly down from last year's 192, but when I stop to consider that I watched 28 seasons of television (yes, complete seasons) compared to the prior year's 16², I think, holy crap, did I watch a lot of television this year. Thankfully, I think this will slow down in the coming year and I can get back to watching films, including a pet project a friend and I will hopefully be doing in the near future. I have only one season of Buffy left, two of Angel, and LOST's final season starts in about a month. I have a few others I want to see, but if I were to make a prediction about this, I think this year was likely an anomaly.

    In any case, I saw 32 films in the theater, which is about the same as last year, and 19 of the movies I watched this year were primarily because I have kids (I'm looking at you, summer blockbusters).

  • 72 books, which is ten more than last year. I didn't count any of the books I read aloud to the kids save one (A Christmas Carol, which is sufficiently hefty to be countable), but I did read a fair amount of genre fiction this year. I read a handful of nonfiction books (4) and three books for work (3 -- also nonfiction, but separated out), which means I read more than 90% of people in my profession did this year, if Steve McConnell is to be believed. This is up from 62 books last year, with roughly the same distribution.

  • 11 games, which is up from last year as well, and those games I played I tended to play quite a lot of. I played Fable II and bought every property; I played Far Cry 2 and found or earned every diamond. I think I found all but two points of interest in Assassin's Creed (flags, or whatever), solved all the Riddler's challenges in Batman: Arkham Asylum, and found all the orbs in Prince of Persia. That's quite a lot of OCD gaming, my friends. And that's not even counting the games I've played quite a bit of but haven't finished (hopefully we'll see them here next year): Brutal Legend, Braid, World of Goo, Tomb Raider: Underworld... I also started several handheld games, never to finish them, and while I don't think I'm likely to, I did put some hours in there as well.

    And again, this doesn't count boardgames, though between me and the boys we have already started to amass a significant collection.

The Resolutionary: I have no resolutions really to make except that I think that much television is excessive. Four series really grabbed me this year: MI-5, LOST, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Angel. Of these, LOST probably takes the least of my attention -- it's more an emotional rollercoaster while I'm watching it than anything else. I might also aim to play more quirky games this coming year, especially downloadables. I have played several but only finished a couple.

The Accountant: I honestly have no idea where I found this much time for all this entertainment. Granted, I was not crunching on a game at all, so perhaps that's reason enough to have found a lot of time -- there were two or three months in 2008 where I barely read, watched, or gamed at all.

The Biorhythmicist: Uh, why did I have this category last year? I guess I went into a period this year where I was really into playing games; all of the games I finished this year, I finished since May. I didn't play any in those first five months or so, at least, none that I cared enough about to finish.

The Apologist: Those seasons of TV were especially gripping :) And having said last year that I'd like to blog more about games this year, I'd have to say I largely fell down. I did post twice as many blog entries in the last year than the year prior, which is good; I haven't yet posted about several games that I finished and have something to say about, which had a lot to do with when I finished them and how driven I was to get to the next one. I played a bunch of games in November and December, and only posted about the one. I hope to turn that around this year.

See you in the next week when I start a series of posts about some game design work I did over a decade ago, and the lessons I learned doing it... I've already written most of the first one, so this is not an idle threat ;)

¹At least, I haven't tried with the new television. I had no reception with the old tube TV and although this one is LCD, I think I'd need to buy some kind of antenna or something. I'm not going to bother. (back)
²Even putting a season at a conservative 10 hours or so, this would mean about 60 more "movies" worth, meaning I'd have seen slightly more filmic entertainment than the prior year, or about the same. (back)

Posted by Brett Douville at 08:46 PM | Comments (0)