Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Art of Game Design

The weight of paper

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Geological map by Henry Darwin Rogers

Note: I’m taking a few days off, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on December 12, 2015.

Take a look at the map above, which was the work of the American geologist Henry Darwin Rogers. As the legend on the right indicates, its various colors represent different rock formations. It’s obvious that some areas are larger than others, but how would you measure the difference? When Charles Darwin—no relation—was writing The Origin of Species, he was faced with exactly this problem, and his answer was an elegant one: “I have estimated the areas by cutting out and weighing the paper.” And while his solution reminds us, in the words of Stanley Edgar Hyman, that “there is something formidable and relentless about [Darwin’s] active involvement” in personally investigating everything that affected his argument, it also testifies to the weight of paper. We often treat paper as a two-dimensional surface with zero thickness, but it isn’t, of course. In the old days, anyone who sent a letter by airmail became acutely aware of its physical properties, and publishers still have to think about it today. Above a certain size, a book becomes harder and more expensive to produce, which has subtly influenced the length of the books we’re used to reading. (A few titles, like Robert Caro’s The Power Broker or Vincent Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History, seem determined to push the limits of how many words can be packed between two covers.) But while I’ve spoken frequently here about the importance of using pen and paper to work out ideas, I’ve generally thought of it in terms of the act of writing with ink, and I haven’t given nearly enough emphasis to the properties of the paper itself.

I got to thinking about this while reading a blog post a while back by the tabletop game designer Max Temkin—most famous for Cards Against Humanity—on the testing process behind a game called Secret Hitler. It’s full of useful advice, like this: “Jon Sharp taught me a great rule for iterating based on observed player feedback: ‘double or half.’ If something isn’t working, double it or cut it in half to quickly diagnose the problem. I like to think of this as the ‘Dr. House’ approach to game design.” But what I liked about it the most, aside from its fantastic pictures of game prototypes, is how the physical feedback provided by the paper itself informed the design process. Temkin started testing the game with blank playing cards and generic card sleeves, and if you want to get even cheaper, he recommends pasting slips of paper over cards from the free sample packs you get at Magic: The Gathering events. (Temkin writes: “Nobody wants them except for game designers, who usually jump at the opportunity to fill their backpacks with cheap cardboard rectangles that are great for prototyping.” Which reminds me of how I like to hoard business cards, which are the perfect size for notes or putting together an outline.) And the physical cards led to immediate insights about what had to be fixed. For instance: “Secret Hitler uses several different kinds of cards, and we found that players were sometimes confused about what was what…Once the policy cards were a different size and shape, players could easily differentiate them from other cards in the game.”

Prototype for Secret Hitler

And while this sort of prototype seems like an obvious step in testing a tabletop game, it can also be useful for games that are meant to be played in a digital form. In his excellent book The Art of Game Design—which Kevin Kelly of Cool Tools has called “one of the best guides for designing anything that demands complex interaction”—Jesse Schell writes:

If you are clever, you can prototype your fancy video game idea as a simple board game, or what we sometimes call a paper prototype. Why do this? Because you can make board games fast, and often capture the same gameplay. This lets you spot problems sooner—much of the process of prototyping is about looking for problems, and figuring out how to fix them, so paper prototyping can be a real time saver.

Schell goes on to note that this approach is more intuitive for a turn-based game, but it can even be useful for games that unfold in real time. To prototype Tetris, for example, you could cut out pieces of cardboard with a razor blade and move them around the table: “This would not be a perfect Tetris experience, but it might be close enough for you to see if you had the right kinds of shapes, and also enough to give you some sense of how fast the pieces should drop.” And even for a game like Doom, you could put together something with graph paper, paper tokens, and a metronome to tick off the seconds: “This will give the feeling of playing the whole thing in slow motion, but that can be a good thing, because it gives you time to think about what is working and not working while you are playing the game.”

And what all these approaches have in common is the fact that paper, which is inherently rather slow and clumsy to manipulate, forces you to think more urgently about what is interfering with the user experience. Anything that the player shouldn’t have to think about consciously while playing, like physically keeping track of the cards, ought to be ruthlessly edited out, and the paper prototype magnifies such problems so that they can’t be ignored. (They can also be revealing in other ways. Temkin notes, delightfully, that the game piece being handled by the players who were assigned the role of Hitler became more worn than the rest, since it was the role that generated the most anxiety.) And this seems to be as true of outlining a novel as it is of testing a game. When I use cards to map out the action of a story, I stack them in piles—sorting each card by character, scene, or theme—and I can tell at a glance which piles are larger than the others. A stack that seems too small should either be beefed up or combined with something else, while one that is too large to handle comfortably should be culled or split into two or more pieces. You can even draw conclusions from which cards have become tattered from being handled the most, and I imagine that for projects of a certain size, you could even weigh the cards, as Darwin did, to get a quick sense of each section’s relative bulk. You don’t get this kind of information when you’re laying out the whole thing in text files, as I’ve recently found myself doing, which is just a reminder that I really should get back to my cards. In writing, as in any creative endeavor, you can’t afford to ignore any potential source of insight, and if you put it down on paper, you’ll do a better job of playing the hand you’ve been dealt.

Back to the Futurians

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New Fandom

The study of social networks—and in particular of how ideas travel from one person to another—can pose infuriating problems, especially if you’re trying to follow along in real time. Entire movements have a way of exploding into existence online and disappearing before you have a chance to react, and their beginnings and endings can fall so close together that it can be hard to see the intermediate stages. From the point of view of sociological analysis, it would be nice if we could find a way to slow it all down. In his excellent book The Art of Game Design, Jesse Schell recommends putting together a paper prototype of a game, even for something like Tetris, both because it’s easy to make and because it naturally decelerates the process, allowing you to study each step. Speaking of a hypothetical paper version of Doom, Schell describes a setup with cardboard pieces and a metronome, then writes:

Configure your metronome to tick once every five seconds, and make a rule that you can move one square of graph paper with every tick…This will give the feeling of playing the whole thing in slow motion, but that can be a good thing, because it gives you time to think about what is working and not working while you are playing the game.

On a similar level, we’d learn a lot about social networks and virality if we could somehow reduce it to paper form. It would slow it down, allowing us to examine the components at our leisure and trace the interactions from one stage to the next, while leaving a paper trail to show us exactly how an idea spread and mutated from its point of origin.

In fact, at least one paper version of a social network does exist: the early science fiction community. I got to thinking about this while reading The Immortal Storm: A History of Science Fiction Fandom by the fan and historian Sam Moskowitz. It’s a book that has a deserved reputation for being unreadable: even Isaac Asimov, who know most of the players firsthand, found it hard to finish. There’s something undeniably amusing about its endless, detailed descriptions of disputes and controversies that occurred within fan clubs with fewer than a dozen teenage members in the late thirties. Really, though, it’s in the same vein as the oral histories of newsgroups, or even individual threads, that have started to appear in recent years, and it gains additional interest from the fact that many of the participants—Asimov, Donald A. Wollheim, Frederik Pohl—went on to become pivotal figures in the genre. The overall beats of the story are familiar to anyone who has experienced fandom’s ability to bring people together and tear them apart in the same breath. (Moskowitz describes one club, with a total of five members, that immediately split into two irreconcilable factions.) But if the patterns are the same, it’s also emphatically a story about paper: magazines, letters, fan publications. As Moskowitz writes:

The early fan publications were not only the pride but the very foundation of the field…History is a systematic record of man’s progress, and we turn to their magazines to discern the story of science fiction fans’ progress—and progress it was.

Fantasy Magazine

And it’s a kind of progress, with frequent moments of regression and implosion, that will immediately ring a bell for anyone with experience of online communities. Science fiction fandom began in the letters columns of pulp magazines like Amazing and Astounding, which provided a forum in which fans could communicate and learn one another’s names and addresses. This wasn’t what the editors had in mind, but much like later platforms like Twitter or Reddit, the user base quickly appropriated the available infrastructure for ends that their creators never intended. (Among the fans who met through through a shared love of Amazing were Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who went on to create Superman.) The letters pages led to private correspondence between fans, followed by meetings in person, at least in cities—Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, and above all New York—where the population density was great enough to allow a critical mass of enthusiasts to congregate. The fans in question were almost invariably white males: then as now, communities tend to attract new members who look pretty much like the ones who are already there, although there were a few striking exceptions. Most were teenagers, the equivalent of the youthful early adopters who have driven nearly every successful form of social media. They also took advantage of new technology, notably the mimeograph and the hectograph, to print fanzines and newsletters. Some of the organizations were “sponsored,” after they had already come into existence, by magazines like Wonder Stories, which devoted a few column inches to promoting favored groups like the Science Fiction League. This led, in turn, to accusations that such clubs had sold out, and that the real fans were the ones who were opposed to the establishment. Sound familiar?

The resulting clubs and fanzines were shaped by the many of the same forces that we see online today. Fan magazines began as a place to discuss science fiction, but they quickly became a closed world of their own, with running jokes, insider references, and memes that had the effect of excluding outsiders. An ongoing fake controversy about the use of wire staples by the pulps, for instance, spiraled into a war of letters between groups like the Society for Prevention of Wire Staples in Scientifiction Magazines, or SPWSSTFM, which feels a lot like the labored gags we find today on Reddit. And like any close community of fans—for much of the thirties, there were fewer than fifty active members—it was dominated by a handful of strong personalities, many of whom came to prominence by their frequent appearance in the letters columns, which was the equivalent of being upvoted. Donald A. Wollheim, for example, became a major force in later years as a writer and editor, but in his twenties, he was basically the first known troll. He alienated just about every other fan at one point or another, and his favorite trick was to find a vulnerable club, take it over, and dissolve it. (In response to one controversy, fans passed around what Moskowitz demurely describes as “numerous unsigned drawings [of Wollheim], some of which were quite pornographic.”) And many supposedly ideological conflicts, like the feud between New Fandom and the Futurians, were really about clashes of personality. Tomorrow, I’ll go into more detail about one dispute, which culminated in a confrontation at the First World Science Fiction Convention, and the light that it casts on issues that we’re still seeing today.

Written by nevalalee

July 26, 2016 at 9:41 am

The weight of paper

with 2 comments

Geological map by Henry Darwin Rogers

When Charles Darwin was writing The Origin of Species, he was faced with a tricky problem: how would you compare the areas of the different kinds of rock shown above? A quick look at the map by the geologist Henry Darwin Rogers—no relation—is enough to establish that some formations are clearly larger than others, but it isn’t immediately obvious how to quantify the difference more precisely. Darwin’s answer was an elegant one: “I have estimated the areas by cutting out and weighing the paper.” And while his solution reminds us, in the words of Stanley Edgar Hyman, that “there is something formidable and relentless about [Darwin’s] active involvement” in personally investigating everything that affected his argument, I also like how it testifies to the weight of paper. We often treat paper as a two-dimensional surface with zero thickness, but it isn’t, of course. In the old days, anyone who sent a letter by airmail became acutely aware of its physical properties, and publishers still have to think about it today. Above a certain size, a book becomes harder and more expensive to produce, which has subtly influenced the length of the books we’re used to reading. (A few titles, like Robert Caro’s The Power Broker or Vincent Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History, seem determined to push the limits of how many words can be packed between two covers.) And while I’ve spoken frequently here about the importance of using pen and paper to work out ideas, I’ve generally thought of it in terms of the act of writing with ink, and I’ve realized that I haven’t given nearly enough emphasis to the properties of the paper itself.

I got to thinking about this while reading a blog post by the tabletop game designer Max Temkin—most famous for Cards Against Humanity—on the testing process behind a game called Secret Hitler. It’s full of useful advice, like this: “Jon Sharp taught me a great rule for iterating based on observed player feedback: ‘double or half.’ If something isn’t working, double it or cut it in half to quickly diagnose the problem. I like to think of this as the ‘Dr. House’ approach to game design.” But what I enjoyed about it the most, aside from its fantastic pictures of game prototypes, is how the physical feedback provided by the paper itself informed the design process. Temkin started testing the game with blank playing cards and generic card sleeves, and for those who are trying to go even cheaper, he recommends pasting slips of paper over cards from the free sample packs you get at Magic: The Gathering events. (Temkin writes: “Nobody wants them except for game designers, who usually jump at the opportunity to fill their backpacks with cheap cardboard rectangles that are great for prototyping.” Which reminds me of how I like to hoard business cards, which are the perfect size for notes or putting together an outline.) And playing with physical cards led to immediate insights about what had to be fixed. For instance: “Secret Hitler uses several different kinds of cards, and we found that players were sometimes confused about what was what…Once the policy cards were a different size and shape, players could easily differentiate them from other cards in the game.”

Prototype for Secret Hitler

And while this sort of prototype seems like an obvious step in testing a tabletop game, it can also be useful for games that are meant to be played in a digital form. In his excellent book The Art of Game Design—which Kevin Kelly of Cool Tools has called “one of the best guides for designing anything that demands complex interaction”—Jesse Schell writes:

If you are clever, you can prototype your fancy video game idea as a simple board game, or what we sometimes call a paper prototype. Why do this? Because you can make board games fast, and often capture the same gameplay. This lets you spot problems sooner—much of the process of prototyping is about looking for problems, and figuring out how to fix them, so paper prototyping can be a real time saver.

Schell goes on to note that this approach is more intuitive for a turn-based game, but it can even be useful for games that unfold in real time. If you were prototyping a game like Tetris, for instance, you could cut pieces out of cardboard with a razor blade and move them around the table: “This would not be a perfect Tetris experience, but it might be close enough for you to see if you had the right kinds of shapes, and also enough to give you some sense of how fast the pieces should drop.” And even for a game like Doom, you could put together something with graph paper, paper tokens, and a metronome to tick off the seconds: “This will give the feeling of playing the whole thing in slow motion, but that can be a good thing, because it gives you time to think about what is working and not working while you are playing the game.”

And what all these approaches have in common is the fact that paper, which is inherently rather slow and clumsy to manipulate, forces you to think more urgently about what is interfering with the user experience. Anything that the player shouldn’t have to think about consciously while playing, like physically keeping track of the cards, ought to be ruthlessly edited out, and the paper prototype magnifies such problems so that they can’t be ignored. (They can also be revealing in other ways. Temkin notes, delightfully, that the game piece being handled by the players who were assigned the role of Hitler became visibly more worn than the rest, since it was the role that generated the most anxiety.) And this seems to be as true of outlining a novel as it is of testing a game. When I use cards to map out the action of a story, I stack them in piles—sorting each card by character, scene, or theme—and I can tell at a glance which piles are larger than the others. A stack that seems too small should either be beefed up or combined with something else, while one that is too large to handle comfortably should be culled or split into two or more pieces. You can even draw conclusions from which cards have become tattered from being handled the most, and I imagine that for projects of a certain size, you could even weigh the cards, as Darwin did, to get a quick sense of each section’s relative bulk. You don’t get this kind of information when you’re laying out the whole thing in text files, as I’ve recently found myself doing, which is a reminder that I really should get back to my cards when it comes time for my next big project. In writing, as in any creative endeavor, you can’t afford to ignore any potential source of insight, and if you put it down on paper, you’ll do a better job of playing the hand you’ve been dealt.

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