I’ve been off reading Chessack’s great game design rants on Enigmatic Diversions lately. I ended up mailing one of them, Fun and Anger are Incompatible, off to my husband because I thought it was so well-done. Some of the points he makes in his articles remind me of one of my old writing-related hobby-horses from years ago: readability. It goes something like this:
If you are writing for publication, and thus an audience, the major concern you should have is whether your work is readable. What do I mean? Well, take your average writing class for a moment. Say one of your fellow classmates brings a memoir piece to class, and one of the criticisms leveled at it is that some of the details just aren’t believable. The author immediately pipes up with, “but that’s the way it really happened!”
Does that matter? Not really. After all, if the work got published it would be read by plenty of people who, when they decided something was unbelievable, wouldn’t have the author there to tell them “that’s the way it really happened.” This means that the piece must be altered such that it’s believable. This is why there’s a difference between memoir and autobiography—memoir is meant to be read more for entertainment’s sake, and thus it’s expected that authors will fudge details, such as combining several “real” characters into one semi-fictional one for readability’s sake.
Imagine that another classmate brings in a fantasy story filled with dragons, epic heroes and sword-fights. The problem is, he’s detailed the sword-fights blow-by-blow and they’re boring as all hell. His response? It’s a story set in his favorite roleplaying game universe, and that’s how the system works. Well, that doesn’t matter either if he wants the story to appeal to anyone other than himself and a few friends. He’s better off trying to retain the feel of the universe—and, sure, stay within the nuts and bolts of the mechanics—but gloss over those things that aren’t as entertaining in print as they are around a gaming table.
Of course it’s still possible for something that isn’t 100% “readable” by this definition to be an enjoyable read, because it’s a continuum. If the rest of the piece is good enough then some or even most of your readers might ignore the not-so-good parts. Still, by improving on those parts you can improve your craft and the size of your audience, and I can’t think of a down-side to that. You just have to be willing to set aside the defensive part of you that wants to think your writing is great as it is.
Ultimately this is an audience concern. If you’re writing a poem just for your own enjoyment, then you only have to worry about whether it’s good enough to make you happy. But if you’re writing something for others to read then you need to take them into account.
This relates perfectly to tabletop roleplaying; the only difference is that the game master’s (GM’s) “audience” consists of his players while a company publishing RPG material obviously has a much wider public audience. The GM must tailor things to his players’ tastes and desires, and a company must make things usable by a variety of players. Games must be playable.
One of my favorite examples of a module that looked impressive but lacked playability was Troll Lord Games’s The Malady of Kings. The concepts were lovely and the storyline quite magical, but the player characters (PCs) essentially ended up being passive observers who were handed from major character to major character. The adventure included a number of invisible choices where if the PCs happened to do the wrong thing they were totally screwed. The author forgot to take the free will and enjoyment of his wider audience into account. He forgot to consider that other GMs’ players might not make the choices or play the types of characters he assumed. He didn’t remember that he was writing for a particular audience, and in so doing, he drastically undercut his adventure’s playability.
Finally, this also applies to MMORPGs, as Chessack so eloquently argues. As long as a company is designing a game for the enjoyment of a paying audience, they have to try to please that audience. Note that this does not mean pleasing each individual member of that audience, since often individuals want things that won’t make the larger whole happy. However, to quote Chessack,
Because people play games to have fun, it is necessary to design games to be fun. And therefore, designers must absolutely make certain that they do not implement anything in a game that is not fun. If something accidentally makes it into the game that isn’t fun, it must be excised as soon as it is discovered. Most particularly, here, I refer to game elements that are the antithesis of fun. In general, again unless you are some sort of an abnormal person, you won’t be having fun if you are angry, or annoyed. Annoyance is not fun for anyone (sane). When you are angry, you are not having fun — you are pissed off, furious, aggravated, not enjoying yourself. No game that is well designed ought to incorporate anything into itself that is designed to make you angry. That would be poor game design.
Lest someone take this too directly and literally (because someone always does), let me say now that this does not mean that each and every thing in a game has to right that second make everyone happy. Sometimes a frustrating obstacle or two makes victory all the sweeter, and something that frustrates one person might make another happy. Again, it’s the larger audience that the designers must concern themselves with, not individuals.
Therefore, when something irritates the larger portion of your audience, you need to choke down the defensive reaction and change it. When something irritates a smaller portion of your audience, you need to see if there’s an alternate design choice you can make that makes that portion of your audience happy without losing those folks who like the original design decision or derive some benefit from it. Often there are multiple possible ways to accomplish a design goal, and sometimes it takes trial and error, tweaking, or an out-and-out overhaul to do something in a way that makes as many people as possible have fun. You don’t have to make every element of your game appeal to everyone—in fact, you can’t—but you do have to make as many elements as possible appeal to as many players as possible.
People want to enjoy themselves not just when playing an MMORPG, but also when playing a tabletop game or reading a book. They aren’t enjoying themselves if they’re frustrated, bored, and so on. Your ultimate goal when writing a book, a game, or anything else is readability and/or playability, which ultimately means keeping your audience in mind at every step of the way. Not just your ideal reader or player, but the rest of your audience as well.