Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Emily Short Comments on Fun Game Design

Interactive fiction author and critic Emily Short has now jumped on the bandwagon and set up a blog on WordPress.  (If it’s good enough for Scoble, it can’t be half bad, eh?)  She has a great deal of content over there and I encourage you to drink from the fire hose.  Her latest offering in a set of comments on Ralph Koster’s A Theory of Fun for Game Design.  Note that while her comments pertain primarily to Text Adventures and Koster’s book focuses on video games… Short’s words of wisdom can apply just as much to table top gaming.

On puzzle design, she remarks that “a good puzzle should give the player responses to partial successes, should provide lots of feedback, should be interactive enough that it’s worth toying with until the secret reveals itself.”  Ah… that reminds me of the classic spinning blade room in the Infocom adventure Enchanter.  You know there’s a puzzle there… and that it should be possible to get that scroll somehow.  There are several wrong ways to try it… and all of them lead to entertaining death scenes.  When you get aggravated and logically look at all the options, the solution emerges as something that’s obvious and surprising at the same time. 

Thinking some more on my recent question about making combat in text adventures fun, I’d say there’s several things that can be done to that end.  For some reason, Yuen Woo Ping’s Iron Monkey comes to mind as I mull these things over….

1) Increase the vocabulary of the combat rules.  FIGHT ZOMBIE is just not going to cut it.  A martial arts themed adventure might use various “stances” that yield benefits based on the situation.  (Through the course of the game you should get a chance to learn about various signature moves.  The syntax for these would be exclamations: FLYING SLEEVES!)

2) Integrate objects into the combat in a creative way.  A ninja could use smoke bombs to help escape an encounter that’s clearly going bad, for example.  Definitely try to go beyond the old trick of needing to have a certain object to defeat a foe: that reduces the combat to merely being a variation of a “locked door.”

3) Integrate space into the combat in a creative way.  The locale should impact the fight in some way.  Remember that no finale to a James Bond movie had a fight in a boring location!

4) Combat should not be a mere obstacle to the plot… they should be used dramatically to forward the story somehow.  Also, earlier scenes should be used to allow the player to experiment with a range of combat techniques… and the final confrontation should require the player to be fluent in the full range of combat ideas.  You see movie directors set these sorts of things up all the time: if something’s going to be critical in a final scene it will always be “set up” in an earlier scene so that the audience will understand what is happening.

5) A first principle of adventure design is to have several things for the player to do at any given time.  Combat equipment can be scattered throughout the map and hidden by traditional adventure puzzle techniques.  Non-player-characters can be used to provide hints about combat tactics through rumors and conversation.  And the player should can have a way to experiment with combat maneuvers in a non-threatening situation– perhaps with a trainer or ally.  There should always be something for the player to tinker with even if he gets stuck on something.

All of these techniques can be intergrated together to inject a more textured depiction of combat into a game.  Combat can be something that’s completely integrated into the game world and the plot– and not just something that’s tacked on to annoy players.

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