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Friday 4 December 2015

Game Theory vs. Game Crafting

Game designers of a certain would-be 'artistic' or 'intellectual' crowd often extol the virtues of gaming Theory as being the source of the process by which good games are made.
But are they?

I mean, obviously we have the Forge, which makes horrible shitty games. But could, in theory, some more sensible school of game design theory be what produces great games? Doesn't the OSR have a kind of 'theory' to it?

I don't think so, actually.

Actually,  I think good design doesn't come from Game Theory, it comes from Game Crafting, which is not the same.

Otherwise, saying that games come from Game Theory is like saying that all art comes from university art history courses.

All music comes from internet forums with people analyzing songs and lyrics.

I think that this is a pretty important difference between the (unbelievably shitty) Forge approach and the (ultimately great) OSR approach to game design.  Both are talking about games, but the former was all about crafting big pseudo-intellectual meta-theories about the nature of games, which they pulled largely out of their asses, and then trying to create games to fit/prove those meta-theories.

The latter was about talking about games as they already are and how to build and make new cool stuff from that.

Games don't come from theory. Games come from Designers. Those designers may or may not involve discussion with other people in the process of what they create; but when they do, it is still the designer that comes first.

When you say the collective Theory comes first, you end up with abominations like the Forge and the Storygames movement.


Currently Smoking:  Italian redbark + Brebbia no.8


  1. Music and art arn't based on theory you say? BWAH-HA-HA-HA...

    1. How many great musicians have been music theory professors?
      How many of the greatest novels of the 20th century were written by english lit professors?

    2. Robert Fripp, Music Theorist.

      Pink Floyd, Queen, ELO, Eric Clapton, Gang Of Four, Were all formed by people who completed a full course of study at art schools. The so-called "British Invasion" of the US in the 1960's was a movement spear-headed by the British art-school bands, benefits of the British socialist system of the art education, that copied the American style and successfully hijacked the hearts and the revenue of the pop music scene. Eric Clapton is recorded as remembering, how the studio bigwigs arranged a meeting between Eric Clapton, and some other British musicians and some Delta Blues players. Eric Clapton recalled how self-conscious he was, that he a fresh graduate from an art school, was sitting near some black musicians in their fifties, who played all their lives, men without much education, and how he felt like a fake or a poser inwardly comparing his lack of experience to a lifetime of theirs.

      Regarding authors, it's publish or perich in the American Academia, and those who teach Lit, must publish literature. Tonias Wolff, is a great professor of literature. He wrote This Boy's Life, made into a movie, and a far better book, In Pharaoh's Army. Did I mention that he is a former Green Beret, speaks Vietnamese and is a combat veteran? Others, John Barth, Wolff has a brother, also a Professor, also a published novelist, fantasy novels. Other bestselling Profesors are E.L. Doctorow (Ragtime) and Salman Rushdie. If you never read Rushdie, try Shalimar the Clown, I will ruin the surprise for you, despite its flowing language of the Arabian nights, the novel is dead on point describing the Indian Kashmir and the devastation of its culture by the religious conflict there. It blew me away, once I realized what it was about.

    3. Professors are almost always primerally theorists; while they are often practitioners and/or pedagogue, it tends to be of secondary import to research, subject knowledge and ability to develop theory are more important to that role.

      A better question is what portion of professional musicians and high skilled amatuers have some level of theory knowledge? Does increased theoretical knowledge tend to corrilate with improving ability?
      Is there a causative pathway between theory and improved technique?

    4. Ben,
      Professors are but a variety of academics, who teach. There are also academics, who COULD teach, but they practice. In the military in general, and in the US particularly, you need a 4 year degree to make a Lieutenant. You need a masters to go beyond a Captain, and if you want to be a full bird Colonel, you need a PhD, and you have to spend some time teaching at college level. Most large organizations require Ph.D. of their upper level execs, AND will actively send their mid-level managers to grad school. Then, you got a great number of people like Condoleezza Rice, who was a Professor, was picked to serve on the National Security Council as a subject matter expert, from there ended up on a board of directors of EXXON and later ended up a Secretary of State. While not every academic career is as stellar and exemplary, almost every young academic that I know of, tries to get a gig in the outside world, often outside their field of study. Typically boards of directors, curators of museums, consultancies etc. In Europe and in the USSR, where the studio system still dominated the film industry, leading actors, film directors and vocalists dominated art school and conservatory faculties, at least most of the recognizable pop stars in the 1960s and 1970’s had teaching gigs and low pay way out of proportion to their fame for acting and making movies (like in the US in 1920’s).
      Regarding the second part of your question, you had popular American music scene, rock and blues, evolving in the roadhouses and nightclubs, borne by aging musicians, who spent lifetime learning their art by ear and from others, without the benefit of formal training. Along came a bunch of much younger (and whiter) musicians from the UK, who got the benefit of the traditional European (further developed by the communists) state sponsored music education, who did not want the low paying wages that went with being a musician in their (studio) system, and so they came to the US for greener pastures, and what have they been able to accomplish? Using their FORMAL training as musicians, which included a large amount of THEORY (Just look at Robert Fripp, and the whole post-punk music scene in Leeds, UK to see how much ART THEORY was soaked into them)… Anyway, those Brit musician Young Turks were able to learn the playing styles of those American musicians in record time, and DOMINATE the scene. What their knowledge of theory granted them was better wherewithal to be able to better understand and copy the musical style, and then craft a more commercial product that will sell records to wider audiences. Hence the British invasion.
      Theoretical knowledge allows for a couple of things. First, it gives you greater insight to better comprehend your practice. Second, it gives you greater precision. Any good experienced builder can design and put up a house, but whereas a builder will make the load bearing columns 24 inches to be on the safe side so that the building won’t collapse, an architect or an engineer will be able to deem 8 ½ inch columns to be sufficient, letting you trim costs from the project and increase the amount of living space. Finally, while knowledge of theory dos not make you a stronger strategic thinker, it makes strategic thinking easier, by giving you better comprehension and conceptualization.

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  3. Where I come from "game theory" is a branch of mathematics, useful for analyzing balance and flow of a mechanic. Invaluable if you want your game to be both flexible and robust in the face of power gamers or unconventional thinkers. But not sufficient in itself to create a good game. At some point you have to go with what feels right, backed up by actual play testing.

    1. hanelyp,

      You said it better than I could have said it! You are probably well aware that Gygax's eponymous Combat Tables were supposedly inspired by the actuarial statistics. I think that Mathematics is indispensable when it comes to modeling reality for fantasy role playing. I did a project once for my Homegrown campaign. In my game, skills percentages are influenced by the ability scores. I wanted to bring the ability scores more in line with the real world research on ability scores. I perused athletic performance lit and lit on the forms of the expressed IQ. I was amazed, Intuitively, Gygax came close. However, I had to introduce a couple of additional abilities to reflect the modern research. They turned to be derived stats, and I had to jump through some mathematical hoops, to come up with formulas to make the realtionships between the rolled up and derived stats match ther results of the real world research. Boy, did it blow my mind, when I found the right formulas and they worked realistically!!!

  4. Theory is science, performance an art.

  5. Theory is useful but not the only source by any means. Listing a dozen artists out of hundreds does not prove anything except that formal training and quality music are not mutually exclusive. There is value in formal training. There is value in practice. There is values in raw talent. Pundit is right on that actual music is art not theory. Art may be informed by theory but it remains is own thing. For every theory student who practices music as an art, I'll wager there are several who are merely critics and couldn't produce decent music to save their lives.

    I'll also add that theory without talent produces derivative formulaic shit.

    I do find that a solid grasp of math or at least statistics benefits game design. Whether is comes from school or intuition is irrelevant as long as its there.

  6. When dealing with design, it's not so much theory, but design philosophy. Case in point. Gygax had one type pf philosophy in mind, when he wrote the DMG. WOTC had an opposite design philosophy, when they wrote their edition of the DMG. Gygax wrote a game mechanic that would best represent whatever aspect of adventuring he was trying to represent in the game. Articles in the DMG were not meant to be read from cover to cover, but as a reference. When he introduced non-weapon proficiencies, he did so in the opposite and better fashion, than skills as they were handled by the other rpg systems of the time. All of the games at the time (Runequest, etc) used theor skill mechanic in a Nomothetic fashion, while Gygax used them Idiosyncratically. What this means, is that in Gygax game, you didn't need to make a Swimming akill check every time you swam, but only when you were drowning. If you look at his skill descriptions in the Oriantal Adventure, of the Survival Guides, each skill was really a mini-game - you produced a suit of armor, a work of art (or riding or swimming), and each proficiency had its own game mechanic. WOTC adopted the more cumbersome system from all the other games, where you have to do a skill check every time, albeit at a different difficulty levels. All skills have the same game mechanic. Of course, the WOTC design philosophy is the opposite of the Gygaxian, which was actually a trend, when TSR was still around - you develop one core mechanic and administer it to resolve as many of the possible situations in the game as possible. Compare the two DMG's. same title, opposite design philosophies.

    Reagrding Theory, it is the ot organizing principle of how something works, that you need to have, before you represent it in a game or a model. Theories can be wrong, but the game designer can still believe in them and design a good game. For instance, if you take Gygaxian nine point alignment system and try to find it in the real world, you will find, as I did, reflections of the AD&D alignments in real people, but if you look at what made those people act and believe as they did, it was not that they were LG or CG or LE or CE or NE. You will find different dybamics from different areas forming the same people, but not in that typology. Clearly Gygax had some theory of the Alignments, but it was not based on the real world. You need some kind of a theory of something, before you can model it for a game.

    Final thing, is that any game mechanic that resolves any situation in the game is really an algorithm. The step by step procedure for running combat in Gygax AD&D is the best example of a pencil and paper game algorithm, but the Saving Throws, Turning the Undead, Rolling up a character, are also algorithms. Algorithms do their job if they solve a problem that they were written to solve, or in game terms, model reality and resolve a situation in the game. Writing algorithms is a separate real world aptitude and a skill, which can be tested and developed in children for things that have absolutely nothing to do with computers. Implication for the OSR is that Gygax had a better conceptualization of his rules, than designers who improve on his game mechanics, adapting them in the process into their own games, ending up emulating versions of D&D that he created, but never surpassing it.

  7. I would it a bit less harshly than you guys. In my book, game theories that directly proceeds from actual playing experience can be valuable for people with a similar gaming style and expectations.

    1. Good point. This is a part of the product development process that WOTC uses for its D&D game. I am not a fan of it, but it would be interesting to see the sales figures for WOTC D&D vs OSR games. WOTC uses a lot of advanced and sophisticated methods to develop and market its products and I am curious to see how effective they are.