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"Pink isn't a color. It's a lifestyle." - Chumbalaya
"...generalship should be informing list building." - Sir Biscuit
"I buy models with my excess money" - Valkyrie whilst a waitress leans over him

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Guys, Game Design is Hard

If you've ever looked around the various blogs, forums, and miscellaneous sights of the interwebs, you are probably familiar with the term "fandex." You are probably also familiar with the fact that most of them, objectively speaking, are absolutely terrible, usually in some combination of useless, underpriced, or bizarrely over-specific. (And sometimes, impressively, all three at once.) In fact, it's often a source of merriment to read through them and laugh at the hilarious attempts at writing a balanced book, as most of them are fantastic failures on that level. However, they aren't failures because their authors are stupid, or bad at the game, or because they didn't put work into them; most commonly, they are simple victims of the fact that game design is hard, and getting things right is no easy task.

It is a pathetically easy feat to look at a book well after it has come out, after thousands of people have analyzed and tested and examined it to find the best units and builds and point out what is wrong with it. It's so OBVIOUS that Purifiers are undercosted, only a big dumb idiot like Matt Ward could've thought otherwise! Of course Long Fangs and Grey Hunters are too good, how could they possibly be otherwise? Etc. But all of these accusations of incompetence on the part of the designers deny the fact that even very, very small changes to a game's (or army's) rules can have major, lasting consequences on how it functions.

Let's take a short example from the 5th edition book to show what I mean: cover saves. Contrary to what many people think, cover saves did not, in most ways, change very much from 4E to 5E. Cover is still determined the same way- if you're 50% in, the whole unit gets a cover save. Similarly, the rules for area terrain didn't really alter any, either. (Intervening units now provide a save instead of target priority, but that's a different issue.) Even what counts as cover changed very little in most cases. The only real change was the semi-universal upgrade to the numerical values of cover saves- trees, walls, etc, that were 5+ cover before became 4+ cover in the new edition; in fact, the majority (though not all) cover saves were changed to the general 4+ value.

On the surface, this doesn't seem like it should be a big deal; while 5+ to 4+ is obviously numerically significant, it's the smallest possible change you can make on a d6, and it hardly is narrowing the failure percentage by an enormous amount (50% instead of 67%), so at a casual glance, it should push the game somewhat away from low-AP weapons without making them useless, since they still put damage on units more consistently than anything else does.

And yet that very claim is exactly what many people say about 5E- that guns like Plasma and Starcannons are worthless in the new edition, and they're not wholly wrong; it is taken as common knowledge and assumed fact that units in 5E will have 4+ cover whenever they are shot and, more often than not, this assumption is correct. The Las/Plas Tactical squads of yesteryear have vanished, replaced by high-RoF weapons like Multilasers, Scatter Lasers, Autocannons, and so forth, and this stems primarily from the seemingly-minor alteration to the cover save chart.

And this is just a single, tiny example of the sort of cascading changes that happen when you alter some part of a unit, army, or rule. Small differences produce the famous "Butterfly Effect" as their consequences radiate outward across the game. Understanding exactly how these changes play themselves out and how they change the relative strengths of different units and combinations is more than just complex- it is impossibly complex, well beyond the ability of any single person to grasp in its entirety.

Think, then, what the game designer's job is- to not merely grasp the meaning of one or two of these changes, but an entire BOOK full of them. Every single aspect of the rules is under the game designer's control, free to be altered as they please, and from within this kaleidoscope of alterations the designer must attempt to crystallize a coherent working knowledge of how everything comes together. And, as I said, that is outright impossible- no single person, not even a team of any reasonable size can possibly foresee every consequence, no matter how much they may playtest. Perhaps if given years of testing time they might, but they'd be just as likely to get stuck in their thinking patterns and fail to notice something important, which is another common pitfall.

Wizards of the Coast faces similar problems with their expansions for Magic, and it shows often enough- despite having a massive playtest staff, all of them extremely intelligent and experienced players, often recruited from the very best and brightest of the tournament scene and with in-depth knowledge of game design, mistakes still slip by them. And not just little mistakes, HUGE mistakes like Jace, Affinity and Urza Block. MtG has some of the most knowledgeable, dedicated playesting crews for any game I'm aware of and they still screw up on a pretty regular bases- how, then, can we expect Games Workshop, which is barely even willing to admit that the product they produce is a game ("We sell models!") and has less than half a dozen designers working on any given product, to put out anything resembling quality?

And yet, for most of 5th edition, they have managed to do so. Yes, the landscape is dotted with failures, both obvious and not so obvious. Some of them are big- Mr. Cruddace's two latest attempts at codices are glaring examples. Some of them are smaller- Psyflemen in particular and Psybolt Ammo in general stand out as perhaps needing a bit of a cost adjustment. Some of them have simply fallen off the radar, like the poor, benighted Pyrovore and older Techmarines. But, by and large, GW has produced a product that is reasonably well-balanced for even competitive play (as evidenced by NOVA, Wargamescon, and other large events) as well as being relatively flexible in terms of not having a lot of completely dead entries as books past did.

And I think that's something that far too many people forget. Looked at from the outside and from the perspective of the future, mistakes are always easy to see, but in the present and the immediate they are not nearly so simple. Games Workshop, for all its flaws and poor decisions, has managed to do pretty well for itself in the current edition. I have more than my share of quibbles with them and there's lots of decisions that baffle me, even by good writers (why do Purifiers and Grey Hunters get discounts on so many things, above and beyond their natural statline/abilities? why do so many books pay 20+pts for a Heavy Flamer? why overprice MCs so much in nearly every book?), but that doesn't mean the designers are dumb or shortsighted. They could, perhaps, benefit from an outside view once in a while, or perhaps a bit more often than that, but even the ones I dislike are, as best I can tell, intelligent people who are struggling with a very, very complex problem to the best of their abilities.

So give 'em a little slack, okay? You don't have to love and adore them with your every heartbeat, you don't even have to make apologies for their failures, but do at least admit that many of those failures were likely born out of the massive complexity that is part and parcel of designing a game like WH40K rather than some kid of dim-witted incompetence, as is too often the call. As the internet has shown us time and time again, game design is a lot harder than most people think.

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