Playability & Readability—AKA, Always Remember Your Audience

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 isnโ€™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 wonโ€™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 โ€” 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.


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8 comments on “Playability & Readability—AKA, Always Remember Your Audience
  1. ScottM says:

    I like the specific example of a boring but true to the RPG sword fight sequence. I suppose that’s why I’ve been drifting towards systems that make for less truncating when I retell it. I’m not quite to “one roll conflicts”, but it’d better be short, sharp, and memorable.

  2. heather says:

    Another example I sometimes use is the book “American Psycho.” It has these long descriptions in it of various bands and such that have been lauded as brilliant send-ups of the ’80s “me culture.” However brilliant they may be, I’ve never found a single person who will admit to having read through each and every one of them, because frankly they’re boring. The same effect could have been achieved with shorter and less frequent, yet equally “brilliant,” pieces strewn throughout the text.

    This also reminds me of those GMs who ask after ways to “punish” those players who play in ways they don’t approve of. I think that’s another aspect of failing to take your audience into account. If, as Chessack says, you assume you should never do anything in an MMORPG to anger your players because the point of a game is to have fun, then it similarly stands to reason that when playing a tabletop game you shouldn’t try to deliberately anger your players. (IMO, there’s always a better way to solve a problem anyway.)

    I love GMs who figure out which aspects of a game bore or frustrate their players and figure out ways to gloss over those. That’s definitely an example of taking your audience into account and improving playability.

  3. Chessack says:

    I’m flattered that you enjoy my rants so much, especially since I find your own writing equally worth reading. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I think you’ve got the more basic point quite right — whether it’s the GM who forgot gaming is fun, or the author who forgot to make his novel “readable,” one is always headed for trouble when one forgets the audience. What tends to happen is people get so caught up in their “vision” of their own creative work, that they forget that they mean it to be enjoyed and experienced by others.

    That particular post that I made, by the way, was in direct response to a Vanguard: Saga of Heroes designer, who quite literally said that the crafting system was meant to aggravate the players, not to be fun. They made it that way on purpose, in other words… and several of us reading the thread (but amazingly few, compared to the # of responses) immediately had a flag go up and said, “Wait a second… you made it annoying on purpose??.

    This seemed to be one of these cases where the designer didn’t even realize why what he had said raised the hackles on some of us, too… which is kind of sad. But I think this happens in MMORPGs because so many of the “designers” come from a computer coding background, rather than a game design background, and they really do not understand the fundamental elements of game design.

    And most of all, as your Malady of Kings example also illustrates, they don’t seem to understand their audience (the players) at all.


  4. Aaron says:

    I wonder how much believability really gets tested for in game dialogues and other game text.

    In a fiction-writing course I took in college, much of the review process centered around discovering the various disconnects between the author’s perception of the story and the audience’s perception. The problem was often that the author was unaware of his or her own assumptions and failed to get all of the necessary information to the reader. But it was also common for the writer and reader to have different views on what is possible or likely, and what makes sense.

    In that setting, because the editors focused on one story at a time and were taught specifically about the problem of believability, they raised the issue when it presented itself in a story. But MMO testers have generally not been taught about it, and the game’s text is just one of countless components (and, arguably, not given much importance by a good portion of players). It seems that a tester, upon encountering a problem of believability, would be less likely to raise the issue. I suppose that’s really just a hunch.

  5. heather says:

    Chessack: I’m glad you enjoy! It’s been too long since I’ve ranted much. Thankfully I seem to have dug my soapbox out from its hiding place. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    I have to admit I’m amazed that Vanguard designer couldn’t see what was wrong with what he said, but then I guess there’s a reason that game failed so spectacularly. I saw a lot of folks refer to how much they were looking forward to playing it, and then as soon as it came out they all tried it and almost immediately dumped it. I think part of the key is in what he said about refusing to believe he’d done such a poor design that something needed a complete overhaul—he didn’t want to believe or admit he might not have done a perfect job. To do a really good job, you need to be willing to self-edit as well as listen to others’ suggestions, which means admitting your work can be improved. It isn’t easy, but it’s necessary.

    I do think that a lot of writers and game designers either forget to take their audience into account much at all (a la Vanguard) or take some “ideal” reader/player into account and fail to forget there’s a wider audience. I also think you’re right about many folks getting their grand vision into their heads and not being able to see past that.

    Aaron: One of the things I always said with regard to tabletop adventures was that “absolutes are plot holes in disguise.” By this I mean that absolutes disguise assumptions the writer has made about what the players will or won’t do, try, or think, and in the context of an RPG this is a potential plot hole. Such an absolute might be, “the party can only enter the castle through the servants’ entrance.” Well, what if they come up with a clever way to enter it from some other direction? That “only,” that absolute, disguises the assumption that the players won’t come up with such a clever idea, which in a game is a plot hole. Instead the writer is better off providing reasons why they think the party will only enter in that way, what that restriction accomplishes, and how to get things back on course if the players figure out a way around it.

    Assumptions are definitely a tricky thing. Sometimes they cause a writer to leave out vital information, but as you said, sometimes they allow different interpretations of events, which can be good. I think for the most part it’s best if the writer has some idea of where their writing might be open to interpretation, and they make that a conscious choice.

    I think you are right about believable text not getting reported as much by testers. Beta testers, for example, tend to get encouraged to report “bugs,” and you don’t usually classify an unbelievable bit of text as a bug. Besides which, most beta testers are chosen out of a pool of eager game players, not necessarily folks with any kind of design or writing experience.

  6. Chessack says:

    In addition to the “forget your own audience” problem I think one of the reasons Vanguard flopped was this old notion, which now really should be considered out of date given what has happened in the last 4 or so years, that MMORPGs should be “work” rather than fun. Someone on the Vanguard forum referred to this as “Endurance vs. Enjoyment.” She pointed out that the old school MMOs (and frequently MUDs, which EQ and such were based on) were meant to be endured. They were designed to appeal to that small group of players who seem to like their game to be work. On the Bartle scale, I guess you’d say that most early games were designed around Achievers.

    However, most of the actual players in the world are not Achievers (or at least not exclusively) and do not want to endure a game, but to enjoy it. Blizzard figured this out, which is why WOW is such a success. Lesser successes have been games like City of Heroes, which also was designed to just be fun (it gets repetitive, but I don’t think you can really consider the game to be “work”).

    Vanguard’s design team, though, thought of WOW as a “kiddie” game, and they thought that the “real” gamers wanted to do work… wanted to endure, instead of enjoy. So they designed for that… and it flopped because even most of the old EQ vets found out from WOW, COH, and LOTRO, that you don’t have to endure a game… you can just enjoy it.

    Basically, WOW and COH (which came out the same year) let the cat out of the bag — they showed that an MMO did not have to be “work.” And once they demonstrated that, there really was no going back… all future MMOs are going to have to be more fun than work, or they will suffer Vanguard’s fate.

  7. heather says:

    You make a lot of sense. Warcraft was my first MMORPG—I remained stubbornly tabletop before that—so I wouldn’t have noticed that distinction. To me, life’s too short to want to waste my time on something I have to endure rather than enjoy. And oddly enough, while folks think of Warcraft as a “kiddie” game because of the endurance vs. enjoyment distinction, I think it’s usually younger folks who are often still willing to endure instead of enjoy, for a couple of reasons: I think older folks with spouses and jobs are more likely to not want to waste their precious moments of free time on something that doesn’t make them happy, and younger folks are more likely to feel the need to somehow prove themselves through endurance.

  8. Chessack says:

    Oh you are quite right. The whole “WOW is for kiddies” idea is one that some of the most immature gamers of all use to lable people they don’t “respect” — for them “respect” is earned by how little life you have outside of gaming (less = more elite, or “leet” in their parlance). The whole idea that a game that’s designed to be enjoyed is designed for kids, and one that’s designed to be work is designed for adults, is simply preposterous. It’s the adult, veteran gamers who are quickest to recognize when they are being scammed by a game that is not fun.

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