[Scorpia] So, Alan, you’re starting off. There’s a lot of factors which go into game design. Which one do you consider to be the most important?

[Alan] I guess playability for me is the key thing. I know that in war games particularly, a lot of people go for realism. My colleague Jim was involved in a game where you even had to provide the Italians with extra water so they could cook their pasta in the desert.

[Jim] That falls into the category of entertainment.

[Alan] I think this is taking realism rather too far. Particularly when this is in the days when you had to keep records of this information on pads of note paper.

[Jim] It depended on how much you were drinking.

[Alan] It was the sort of thing where one lost track of Italian water at 2:00 in the morning after several six packs. Quite often actually designers are faced with a choice of realism, particularly in things like historical simulations where you have to choose between realism and playability, and I’ve always tended to go for playability. Really it’s a simulation, but it’s also a game, and we’re also in the entertainment business and if you can’t entertain people and if you can’t produce playable games then no one is going to buy your games, nobody is going to look at them.

[Jim] The most important thing is addiction. If you can get people addicted to your games they’re going to play it. The realism bit, back in the old board game days, that’s b-o-r-e-d, there were different things which attracted people to games. Now when I started, you didn’t have much choice. There were these traditional adult games, which back in those days didn’t deal heavily with sex, which wiped out a whole area of addiction, so I basically fixated on the over-educated. They had money, when they were young they had time, and they were the military history buffs. In fact I think that you’ll find that in any genre, even in the twitch games, there are people who will argue over realism. I’ve heard D&D players argue over realism. So you basically have to find out what your audience is addicted to and give it to them. Legal crack.

[Scorpia] So you just basically look for the addicting point in your game?

[Jim] Well you just basically choose your addiction. I’ve always been a historian, so I always pick those who are addicted to history. I’ve also found, which many of you will probably realize, that back in the STI days... how many of you here were actually read S&T and were into that genre? [a few hands go up] Ok, a few of you.

[Scorpia] S&T was Strategy and Tactics.

[Jim] Strategy and Tactics. A history game with an addiction. We ran these surveys all the time because what better way to find out what people wanted to ask them. And we had these 80 or so questions, and I used to put them in the computer. So we used to run these things every two months. And I found out that when we experimented with science fiction games there was this enormous overlap between the science fiction addicts and the history addicts. And this I could trace back to the fact that there was all this speculation on what could happen. And of course, science-fiction merely goes way way ahead whereas the historical what ifs are merely trying to predict the past. But there was that tremendous addiction to finding out more, more, and that’s what addiction is all about. So whatever game you’re going to do, you have to have that addiction. In the fantasy games, you build worlds. And Fed, to a large extent, has done that in a science-fiction context. And the more detailed your world is, the more compelling it is, the more addictive it is and more people will pay to play it.

[Scorpia] So when you start to design a game where do you begin?

[Alan] I’ve got to be honest here, because Clem [ibgames’ marketing director] is sitting in the back, well... [laughter from audience] Actually, the truth of the matter is, for many years now, Clem has been urging me to design games for the masses. Some of you may notice that my games are not for the masses, they tend to be for achievers. What I actually start with when I’m designing a game is I design a game I want to play. This is rather anomalous because I suspect like Jim, I don’t actually play games. That doesn’t stop me starting from a position of, "Is this a game I want to play?" I always wanted to play a space trading game in the future, and the origin of Fed came out because I was playing MUD, which was the English name for British Legends, which some of you may have heard of, and I got right up to the top of it and I got sick of playing orcs.

So I got together with this guy (because I couldn’t write programs) and he said, "No problem, I can program in BASIC. You write the game, and I’ll program it." So, this lasted about three weeks until I’d gotten the outline of the game and he said, "I’m not sure BASIC can handle this, and it can only handle one player at a time." I said, "I thought we were supposed to be writing a multi-player game." Anyway, he dropped out, so I taught myself to program, and from that the whole thing about Fed evolved. But really what it all comes down to is that what inspired me to write it at that stage was that it was something which I would’ve liked to have played. And there in a sense lies the conundrum for game designers because you cannot play your own games. You know all the answers for a start, you know, you put the puzzles in and you know the answers to the puzzles. So that’s my recipe for starting a game.

[Scorpia] And you?

[Jim] Find out what people want and give it to them. The market for games is bad. One of the problems of going into the mass market games is that you’ve got massive competition. And it’s no fun anymore. You ask anyone who’s producing games for the mass market what game they want to do, and they basically want to do their competitor’s last hit which is why there are so many Doom II games. I mean, look what happened with Command and Conquer, y’know, the continuous motion games. You can almost predict, 12 to 18 months after a new genre hit game comes out, there’ll be literally dozens of clones out there. Now how many of those people are going to make money?

Six years ago, having tried to get out of gaming, I looking at the online aspect of gaming and the first thing that I did was read about 4 megabytes of messages from the various boards for Gemstone, and for the other games that were on GEnie in the late 80s/early 90s. I decided that the market was quite small at that point because there were very few people online, and a small percentage of people would play the games. Then I realized that I’d actually done something about 12 years before back when I was running S&T, that there were more and more of these multiplayer games by mail. And, they were attracting back then when you had to use the cumbersome method of sending messages by mail and Flying Buffalo still does it; they were one of the early ones. They would get a few hundred people doing this! So the idea of doing a massively multiplayer game on Hundred Years War using a mini computer to moderate (not to knock on Flying Buffalo, although I think they were using PCs by then) would be a viable business model.

Well I got out of gaming completely a couple years later but Alan Opey, who’d done most of the research for me, hadn’t thrown away his notes, God bless him. This was one of those rare times when you didn’t throw something away and actually got to use it. So he hauled out his notes and I said yeah, this is just what we need. But then I realized that as the market got bigger, it would change. It always does, it’s something I learned in the board game industry, markets never stand still, not in terms of how big they are, but the composition of them and what the people want. It’s like a virus, it mutates. When you think you’ve got it tagged it mutates into something else and it’s out of control again, and it certainly is the scene for online games, it’s always out of control.

So I realized that the idea of paying $6-12 an hour would not appeal to a large market, because that’s what you were paying back then in 1989. Alan had some experience over in England where someone had gone down to two bucks and it went over, so I guess that was the tip point, at least for paying. But I realized that eventually it would have to be very inexpensive in order to compete with the stand-alone games. The stand-alone games in the late 80s, early 90s were getting much better; Civilization I came out in what, 91, 92? And there were several before that, there was Star something or another, that excellent game using the fractals creatively.

[Scorpia] Star Control?

[Jim] No, not star control, it was the one where there was two of them. I didn’t play the second one because it had some sort of funky decoder thing to get past the copy protection.

[Scorpia] Starflight!

[Jim] Starflight, right, yeah, the first one which didn’t have all that horrendous copy protection was fun. [Audience laughter] Forty bucks, you got hundreds of hours--depending how addicted you were--of play out of it. People were only going to pay certain premiums to play with other people. Now from the early 80s on I was down on Wall Street so I knew about measuring risks and measuring premiums. So the idea was that we had to do a game that wouldn’t keep people online all the time. Another piece of information that I got in the early 80s, I’d been online since 1980, one of the first people who’d ever been on a BBS. I’ll never forget, I was on some BBS in Chicago--there weren’t that many, maybe only a couple hundred--and one of the guys chatting was Ward Christiansen, who created Xmodem, one of the early designers of the software, which is now mutated into the World Wide Web. And we just chatted, and I noticed that one of the problems that the bulletin board operators were having was that initially it was all you can eat, for no money at all. And one of the first things ProComm came out with was an autodialer because nobody could get in!

So obviously you had a limited resource and people coming in with unlimited demands. Of course, all they were really doing was just downloading files, and that was even before GIFs, and some of the more chatty of us were actually carrying on conversations. So I realized a game for the future, because I don’t have to do this for a living, I have a day job [audience laughter] that’s another important thing, if you want to make a lot of money, you’d be better off making it in hardware than software. The important thing was to have a game that would actually entertain people without keeping them online all the time. I also realized that the demographics of my target audience, the over-educated, I suppose, didn’t have much time, and this turned out to be the case. They cannot afford to spend hours and hours online as your college or soon-to-be-college-dropout MUD player will do, because there simply isn’t time, you’re married, you’ve got kids, you’ve got a career, you’ve got this, you’ve got that, as you get older you’ve got more demands on your time. you like to be entertained, but as you get older you don’t get as much sex, so there are very few things you can do that take just a little time and are entertaining. Games are one of them, if you design the game right. So basically I decided to design a game that crammed a lot of action into a small amount of time so they get the hell offline. Because you’re basically selling bandwidth, and you’re seeing this now with all the blood that you’re seeing shed in the online arena, most of the ISPs are not making money, and those that are come up with very creative ways to kick people offline; AOL is probably the biggest practitioner. Although they haven’t been as suave about it as most people. So the idea was to create a game that will entertain at a cost that hopefully the supplier and the buyer can afford. So now we’re selling Hundred Years War, one game, at six dollars a month. Of course the people who are the hardcore who have time to burn, or are in the process of getting divorced, they play multiple games and what have you, but then again it’s almost like a meter but it still has the flat rate system. You cannot give it away for free; the games that are going out there right now for free are only a transitory phenomenon because they’re basically being subsidized by the standalone game publisher; I mean they say, quite frankly, especially when the stock analysts nail them to the wall, "Well, it’s a promotional expense." Well how long can you afford a promotional expense that’s eating up all your profit and then some? So basically it’s going to go to flat rate. But six years ago I said, "Let’s design a flat rate game!" And that’s what we’ve been doing.

The only thing that’s slowed us down is porting ourselves all over the online world. Once we got working on GEnie, it was oh, let’s go to AOL. So hundreds of thousands of programmer hours got wasted porting over to AOL with their undocumented API. And then AOL wasn’t going to work out, they don’t want games, so whoops, over to the web. Hopefully we won’t go any farther than the web. I know you shouldn’t say stable and the web in the same sentence but the web I suspect will be there in one form or another for a while, and that’s where I think the games will going to end up being flat rate. And that’s how essentially I do the game.

[Scorpia] Jim brought up an interesting point. He’s designing a game where people don’t have to be on very long to play, where as Alan has Federation which is sort of a game that keeps people in it. How do you see that in relation to HYW?

[Alan] Well, actually, as Jim basically put it the games were actually designed on different premises. My game’s designed to run--well, all three games in the works at the moment are going to run on X amount per hour, where Jim actually designed his game where it didn’t have to run on so much per hour. You didn’t see this, but I was actually talking to people earlier this morning and was explaining in fact you cannot run a game like Federation on a flat rate because it’s simply not designed for it.

[Scorpia] Well, it wasn’t so much the flat rate but the fact that Jim’s game was designed for people not to have to spend so much time in it, but Federation has a different slant. You expect people to spend time in it.

[Alan] Yes, but I don’t want them to spend too much time in it. [audience laughter] What I want is for them to spend enough time to keep me in sex, booze, and rock and roll. [audience laughter] But no more, because then I have to work hard to figure out what to do with them the rest of the time they’re there. Jim has got it fairly well sussed, he doesn’t want them to spend, well, he doesn’t really want them to spend any time on.

[Jim] That’s the ideal game. People will join, and they won’t play.

[Alan] We have an interim situation which are things called macros, where instead of people playing my computer, they arrange for their computers to play my computer. What is stunning about this is that they’re still prepared to pay on an hourly rate, while their computers play my computers. Of course, what they haven’t sussed out is they can’t win, because I control it. It may be partially because I got into writing multiplayer games much earlier than Jim did and he was able to come along and analyze what was already going on, whereas Federation is nearly ten years old now, and it’s written, it comes in, if you like, from a very specific historical experience. It has direct links that go back to the English single-player text adventure game. It goes right back through the Infocom games and right back to the original Colossal Caves adventure. If you look at it, its design is almost linear from that. Ok, it is not AD&D fantasy but it has its linear roots all along that and if you look at how those games are designed, they’re resource management games at one level, and that is written into Fed and that means that Fed has these almost historical limitations.

In order for it to actually work I have to get these people online for a certain length of time, because otherwise it doesn’t work. If people in Fed were on as "little" as they are in Jim’s game, Federation wouldn’t work because we wouldn’t be able to build up the same sort of community. I think it’s significant that Jim has already made concessions in terms of community building with the pub thing which they’ve put in, which I happen to know for a fact... I can’t remember what you call it--

[Jim] Interactive court?

[Alan] Yeah.

[Jim] That was there from the beginning.

[Alan] No it wasn’t! [audience laughter] I happen to know, because I know the people who suggested the idea, that they were old Fed players who were fed up with not being able to talk in your game, when they could talk in ours.

[Jim] Communication was always part of the game; we had the in-game mail and everything, you had to be able to communicate because basically it’s a diplomatic game. All these players, in any multiplayer game really, whether it’s massively multiplayer or three or four people, you have to make deals. The favorite thing is, "He’s ahead, let’s kick his ass." The problem of people wanting to chat, is that chat, e-mail, and file downloading have always been the three pillars of any online service, whether it be bulletin board or commercial service. It really surprised, I remember back in the 80s when you could still talk to the suits at CompuServe, how popular chat was. I mean, people were willing to pay, what, $12/hour, $6/hour, whatever, just to talk? To type? Not just to get on a phone, it was cheaper to get on a phone. So there was a product that people didn’t realize existed. That people were willing to pay for. The problem was, you had to be able to sell that product at a price you could make a profit on. The problem with the web, and anyone who has tried to get on the web during prime-time has experienced this, is that too many people try to do that fun thing at the same time. A lot of people can’t do it; it just won’t work. So the key is to come up with game designs, or modifications, and I’ve hammered Alan with suggestions over dinner--

[Alan] Yeah, his last suggestion was that I institute plague and wipe out 9/10ths of the players. [audience laughter]

[Jim] Seriously, folks, that’s a good point I brought up about a couple of nice features you could steal from Hundred Years War. In my books I write about game design and what have you, you plagiarize. You borrow, you adapt. This isn’t Hollywood yet. There’s a lot of good ideas in Hundred Years War that you could use, and one of them is the biohazard. One of the theoretical problems of interstellar travel is that every time you hit another planet you have a totally new biosystem. And there are many dangers involved there, not so much plague but just the critters will look upon you as lunch and in many ways; they can bore into your skin, or the big guy comes out, or they put a zapper out. And of course, the most common source of plagues on our planet is trans-species disease. Influenza being the best example, it comes from hogs. And one reason why most of the new strains come out of China is that over half of the world’s hogs live in China, which only has about 20% of the world’s population. People there live in close proximity to pigs! A pig sneezes on you, it’s got a cold, it’s got a virus, bingo! You’ve got a new strain of influenza. You go to another planet, you get sneezed on by a little something ("Oh isn’t that cute!" "Achoo!"), you’re dead meat! So that’d be a great way to liven up the game, the biohazard thing. So if you see it pop up now you know where it comes from.

But the other things like managing the family; there are many things you could adapt to a game like federation that wouldn’t necessarily turn it into Hundred Years War. Hundred Years War’s engine could be turned into any other kind of game--a space game or something like that--it was also designed like that, and once we get settled down in one place.

[Alan] I paid you not to.

[Jim] All right, we carved up the universe between us. And you can adapt those methods to basically encourage people not to hang online all the time. And if they are going to hang online don’t have a chat system which is so elaborate and so expensive that they’re going to bankrupt you. T1 lines are very expensive; as you fill up one line you’ve gotta get another, another couple thousand bucks a month, and that’s what kills you. Plus the problem of even getting through. I think one of the big advantages you can give yourself is the GFE [Graphical Front-End], which can take a lot of the work. For example, Alan talked about macros which are very useful in a game like Fed and indeed have been around in many games for many years, because everybody in games like that have the same problem; there are repetitive tasks which they don’t want to do themselves and they get carpal tunnel syndrome after a while. So you write a macro to do your heavy lifting. You put a lot of that stuff into the GFE.

For instance, there’s no reason why you couldn’t put a lot of the business aspects of Federation in a graphic front end. In fact, this is what we planned; we have a graphic front end for Hundred Years War. You still have to do a lot of your fief management, your economic stuff, online but it’s always in the spec and as we get settled down there--we have to go from Unix to NT and all other sorts of problems; in fact we’re going to redo the whole GFE in Java, so let’s hope to hell they don’t blow Java out of the water, because that solves the problem of all these damn Macs fanatics coming out of the woodwork asking, "Where’s the GFE for the Mac?" Next thing you know the Sun crowd will come after us.

You can put all of those things into the graphic front end, and people like to do this; they do it now, you can download all the stats and stuff, and you can just look at it and figure it all out on paper, think, "I can do this, I can do that," then go online and boom-boom-boom-boom. Because another problem you have when you’re online is getting discoed. Disco inferno! I mean, this is fun, you’re right in the middle of some hot and heavy operation which requires precision timing [audience laughter] and you can’t do anything if you’re not there. So if you did all of your busywork on the GFE, including programming your bots, your whatever, your macros, and then just boom! Just like a one pass. First go in, one pass, stay connected, pop into Chez Diesel or the Interactive Court or whatever, and do all that touchy-feely stuff with the other players. One of the other important things we discovered, because communication is so important--I sysop one game just so the other sysops don’t accuse me of telling them to do crap that I wouldn’t do myself--I find there’s a couple dozen messages waiting for me going back and forth, and some of them are for the sysops and so forth. It’s easier if you set your GFE up so you just go into the game grab all the messages for you, go offline, you don’t have to worry about disco, you can sit there at your leisure, do the messages, and then boom! Go online, send them all off to everyone, and you can still go into the Interactive Court.

The important thing for the game provider is that you’re not tying up your T1 line. Y’know, people just hanging online, because every time someone’s online you’re taking up X number of bandwidth, because even if they’re not doing something, this is what was killing AOL in the beginning of their flat rate period. So this is where it’s going to go whether you want it or not. Alan been going kicking and screaming into the GFE world but the sheer economics of it indicates that you’ve got to give people not just yourself a way out, which is the main reason for doing it, but a lot of people prefer it. They like being able to have all the information there, and not to depend on a sometimes very unreliable connection.

[Scorpia] So what do you think about that, Alan, as it relates to Fed and other games?

[Alan] I think Jim’s winning. [audience laughter] I’ve been timing this, and he’s definitely gotten something like 70% of the time on this one.

Battle of the Game Designers - Part 2

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