Month: January 2024

Feedback on the game concept: What a concept drawing is good for

After presenting the game concept I wrote about in my previous post to my project group yesterday, we had a very rewarding discussion which resulted in two things: their questions helped clarify (both to them and me) what the different parts of the game are meant to do, and their thoughts helped me gain a clearer picture of what kind of content I’m going to create and put into the subgames over the next two weeks.

As for the first part, it is hugely helpful to have people ask questions to understand the game concept drawing – and in this context, I’d like to add that even sentences that are at first not overtly recognisable as questions related to the game content are in fact just that: when someone is tyring to understand your game, they are often thinking very hard while at the same time trying to align their world view and the ideas about the project that they have established in their own minds with what they are seeing in front of them, which means that whatever the way they word it, they are in fact asking ‘how does this fit it with what I think I know?’, and this is the question I as a game designer try to answer. I find attempting to adopt this frame of mind very helpful to facilitate a productive feedback session that results in ideas for how to proceed rather than frustration about people not getting your point or trying to warp the game into something you think it can never become – at this point, the game barely has any outlines, so there’s not really any ‘forts to defend’ so to speak, so listening and answering the questions behind the statements is more productive.

As you can see in the image above, I made some changes to the concept drawing already at the meeting. This was due to the reaction to the word ‘Activist’, the discussion of which became so heated that it almost took over the entire feedback session, so I changed it to something that was less of an obstruction to the minds of the group. Also, based on the feedback I moved the Nature subgame from behind a screen and out in the open, instead placing the Nature team behind it to take their actions in secret, leaving the other players to wonder what they are all about during the first rounds, when the Nature players will be limited to saying one or a few words when communicating with other players, in addition to taking special actions at the subgames.

One piece of feedback regarding the idea that the Nature table will contain symbols that are intelligible to most players was that we today understand most things about nature, so there really are no secrets that only Nature players know: humans are largely aware of all the averse effects of their actions. After discussing it some more, we decided that although all the symbols may be known, the connections between them aren’t, meaning that the scientists (and some of the foresters) know what the symbols underneath the resource cards mean, but the exact effects of cutting down a forest area and converting a wetland area into farmland is not – that’s the game effect that the Nature players represent, i.e. the connections between actions and consequences. This will be explored in the game design process when I construct the Nature subgame.

The possibility of scientists interacting with Nature players to learn more about how things are connected was mentioned, and also that the work of researchers could quite literally be represented a puzzle. The role of the University/researchers/scientists in this particular game will have to be explored – it was included as I know from experience that the first things players do is ask if they can research new things, but just how this will work in the game is not yet clear, and it is entirely possible that research could be made into a mechanic instead of a table if it fits better with the narrative. At one point it was suggested that scientists play Nature, but that was later dropped, which shows just how unclear the role is at present – there is also the question if NGOs should have one or more tables in the game, or if they should replace the university as the knowledge-gathering/R&D aspect of the game.

One topic that was raised several times was how the issues between urban and rural areas/populations are expressed and dealt with during the game, and it was concluded that this will be dealt with in the subgames. At the resource supply/production table, the question of where resources should be sourced from may be one of those conflict areas: where to place wind power and nuclear plants, whether to use forest for production or recreation, how to develop businesses that are based in rural areas, etc. This is the part of the game where we will add most content after we have had interviews with stakeholders, and so the first playtests will mostly test various game mechanics to find out which work best.

Another aspect of the game that was raised was that of sustainability. My initial thoughts after listening in to the discussion is that economic sustainability is handled in the Resource supply and Consumer subgames, ecological/biological sustainability in the Resource supply and Nature subgames, and social sustainability in the Consumer and Politics subgames. What is considered to be sustainable remains to be discussed, and perhaps this is one thing that the game is about: negotiating a balance between the three instead of staring fixedly at economic sustainability and hoping technology will handle the rest? There is also the question of how to make visible how perspectives on sustainability vary between regions and urban/rural areas, which is particularly interesting in this project, and which I will keep in mind when I go to work on creating the first prototype of the game.

Game concept: Nature behind a screen

After a very rewarding round of feedback from my colleagues in the project and a refreshing run of Watch the Skies by the East Sweden Megagames network, it was less of a challenge to put together a draft of what may become the skeleton of the Melting the Polarization (MtP) megagame. In this post, I’ll outline my thoughts and try to connect it to the feedback I got on my last post, in the hopes of contributing to the discussion of the game concept that will take place tomorrow.

What you see above is a (very confusing) concept drawing of a megagame, and in the following I’ll try to explain it a little bit. There are four types of tables, each with a different colour in the drawing above: one table each for the Government, Activists, and the University, and multiple Region tables (as many as are needed to accommodate the number of players, but likely no more than ten).

There are four players belonging to each table, which have different roles but form a team that play together and attempt to achieve certain goals; what these goals are vary between tables. The players begin the turn at their table by planning what each player should do during the Action phase, and then leave their table to go to other tables (called subgames above), where they perform actions to the best of their ability and also negotiate with other players, after which they return to their table to sum up the round’s activities.

In the illustration above, the places where the Region tables’ (there are several) go during the Action phase. The Businessman goes to the Resource supply table, carrying with them any cards (money, workforce, etc.) that they can use to produce and purchase resources (food, consumer goods, export goods, etc.) that the people in the country need to thrive. The Consumer goes to the Consumer table and try to purchase the things that come from the Resource supply table and which the region’s population need to survive and increase their wellbeing. The Politician goes to the Politics table, where they together with the politicians from other tables decide on a budget for the Government and make new laws that affect all other tables. The Forester goes to the Nature table, which is behind a screen, and manages the region’s natural resources (mostly forest and fields, but there are some mines to the north).

There are four subgames: Resource supply, Consumers, Politics, and Nature. Above, you can see which players are at the Nature and Politics tables during the Action phase – in essence, players from all tables are present at all tables (except for the Nature table, where there is no Government minister present), but in varying numbers; the Region players (Businessmen, Consumers, Politicians, and Foresters) are in majority at all tables. The Government, Activists, and University teams may decide to send multiple players to one table and none to others, depending on their assessment of what is required to reach their goals.

The Nature table is the most baffling to most players: it consists of a large map with cards (forest, grain, ore, etc) placed on top of it, and under each card there is one or more symbols, which mean very little to most of the players (researchers can research them, of course, but that takes time). The only ones that understand them all, but are not allowed to say so, are the activists – they are in fact playing Nature, secretly sending swarms of insects to destroy fields of grain and tearing through the monoculture forests based on which cards the Forester players take away from the Nature table to use in production and trade. The Nature team is posing as activists at the start of the game and their goal is to understand what is driving the humans to tear everything down in their search for happiness through the possession of more worldly possessions – much like the aliens in Watch the Skies are trying to understand and communicate with humans from behind their screen – but after a few turns they will be able to reveal their identity and negotiations between Nature and all other tables will be held openly. Interesting and a bit scary to negotiate with someone who can release a tornado or an Ice Age if you won’t agree to their terms, won’t you say?

In the game, players begin by facing the reality of trying to stay alive and thrive in their regions while negotiating the impact this has on the world around them. The scenario starts with a round of everything going according to plan, i.e. business gets their supply of the things people need, consumers gets what they require (and a little extra to make them happy), and politics establish a plan forward. On round two, a shortage of energy (likely oil, but could be something else) will impact the country, sending players far and wide in search of a new means of supporting their system – and they will likely end up trying to make up for it by taking cards from the Nature table, to which Nature will reply harshly. After this, the Nature team will step forward, and there will be a couple of rounds where humans and Nature try to work things out, and the game ends in whatever crisis will be the result of their efforts – it’s very unlikely that they will find a plausible way that suits everyone right off the bat, but there some progress wil likely be made and some people may have to change their roles to accommodate the new world order.

The idea here is for players to journey from their reality to an awareness of nature as a partner that we need to take seriously when negotiating what our future should look like and in so doing begin to see the world around us as a whole, not only the parts not behind the screen. The choice of issues that players will face (the scenario) can change, but the energy one is perhaps most pressing – around 80% of all energy used in Sweden today is fossil, and although most people are all for replacing it, the issue of what to replace it with and what the world will look like once we have is a huge challenge that it may be argued we haven’t even begun addressing seriously yet.

Initial thoughts about what the game will be about

At the start of a new project, the most pressing question for me as a game designer is ‘what is this game going to be about?’ and after a two-day mini-conference with my project group in lovely Växjö I’m looking forward to getting to grips with this question. In this post I will deal with what I heard people express during the meeting and what this has led me to think the game is going to be about – the next step in the process will be to create what I refer to as a ‘concept outline’, which I will present to my project group to give them something to base their discussions and research on as the project moves forward.

The brief answer to the question what I think the game is going to be about is ‘how the resources of an area is used to meet the demands/needs of both the world outside of it and of the people living in the area’. In the discussions I took part in, it was assumed that the scene for this megagame would be located in a region in Sweden (likely because we have done so in other games, most notably Switching the Current), and in connection to this three contexts or spheres were mentioned: the city, the countryside, and nature. The conflicts of interest that were mentioned – forest management, placement of wind power plants, food supply, meat production/consumption, transportation, demography, growth, biodiversity, the existence of wolf packs in the area – were all considered in the context of different groups within spheres having different views on the importance and role of these in the greater whole (a sustainable future, presumably).

The first thing I try to figure out when beginning a new megagame about societal change is whether the megagame will be played on the global scale (players play the world powers, i.e. at the top of the food chain and thus have the power to decide what local and regional actors do to prevent and handle the effects of events such as climate change and loss of biodiversity) or the local scale (players play local or regional actors that implement instructions from above and react to and mitigate events as best they can, but are not assumed to be affect anything outside of the region). The difference may seem to be very small, but affects the role e.g. the climate scenario plays in the game – in the local scale, events are filtered through the actions of fictional governments and supernational organisations such as the EU, which adds a layer of complexity both in the game design and the players’ interpretation of what level of agency they have in the game, i.e. are they free to do as they please or do they need to make sure their actions will not conflict with the agenda of e.g. a fictional, Control-governed national assembly?

In this case, I’m assuming that we’re going to play on the local scale, meaning that we will create a fictional region in which players take on the role of local groups such as city dwellers, farmers, local companies (and local branches of multinational companies), and various aspects of nature, e.g. a river or a forest. The latter is an interesting concept that was tried out by students of the megagame-making course held at Linköping University in Spring 2023, which made for an interesting game experience – instead of representing the effects of e.g. cutting down trees using game mechanics such as ominous red tokens or cards with menacing names such as ‘Death of a forest’, the forest-cutting player would be faced with a member of the Nature team asking them whether they would rather suffer a severe drought or a forest fire, with the added threat of something far worse happening should they not be amenable to the demands of the Nature team (e.g. no more forest cut down east of a particular river).

It may well be that my assumption is wrong and that the game will have a hierarchical structure akin to that in Urban Nightmare – State of Chaos, where players play the chain of command from Governor all the way down to police officers on the zombie-ridden streets. The design decision here is whether to aim for width or height – trying to do both, i.e. both play many different actors in a region and also the chain of command all the way up to the EU level may result in a game that’s uncontrollably large and impossibly difficult to scale to two-figure player numbers. This remains to be seem, however, and it is one thing I’m expecting to receive feedback on when I present my concept outline to the project team in two weeks time.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén