game pitch; a new adventure

I love playing tabletop role-playing games with my friends, so I wanted to incorporate the genre into my game experience design project. TRPG’s fall under the niche/hobby category of games and are about face-to-face, collaborative story telling aided by dice rolls and the guidance of a ‘game master’ moderator. Players act out their character roles and engage in different facets of adventuring determined by the game master’s chosen rule system. It’s a fun way to bond with friends while also experiencing escapism through fantasy, becoming fully immersed in the imagined play space.

“Basics of t-RPGs are to let a set of players share the creation of their own story, where they interpret the main characters. T-RPGs mix dynamics from both society games (for the ludic aspect) and improvisational theatre.”

Delmas, G., Champagnat, R. and Augeraud, M., 2009.

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My TRPG of choice is Wizard’s of the Coast’s Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition. I have the most experience and knowledge with this rule system, though truthfully I’ve never run my own campaign as the game master and will usually take the role of player character instead. Regardless, I want to create my own D&D module to be used by myself and other game masters as an adventure guide. I’ll be brushing up on the official Dungeon Master’s manual and asking for help from some of my experienced game master friends. My goal will be to design a game experience that is immersive, compelling, fair for all players and, most importantly, fun.

“One of the distinguishing features of the RPG genre is its ability to immerse the
player in the world and story that the game creates. The example from a D&D adventure in the epigraph addresses the readers in the second-person, pulling them directly into the story world, situating them in a place, and immersing them. “

Cover, J.A.G., 2005.

There are countless resources online that will assist me in creating this adventure module, including many video tutorials and forum discussion posts over at r/DnD. The website Dungeon Masters Guild also has a variety of templates and game materials that can be downloaded for free. Creating an adventure for D&D involves planning and preparing the narrative, setting, combat encounters, exploration and non-playable characters of an imagined story, then organizing these elements into a document that can be easily applied to the official D&D rule system. I might also attempt to design new gameplay features for my adventure module under the framework of the D&D rule-set, a practice known by TRPG fans as ‘homebrewing’.

The most important factor to consider when designing an adventure module is that it first and foremost acts as a guide for game masters to follow when running their own D&D campaign. This means that my target audience when designing is not just the players but also the game master, as they enact the most important role in determining the players’ overall experience. So, while I may want to consider how the adventure can appeal to both new and veteran players, I should also keep in mind whether or not my module design is effective in aiding the game master’s efforts to run a campaign; having the document be easy to understand and convenient for the game master is key.

“The game master is both a referee and a story director. On the one hand, he checks
the player characters’ actions. He validates actions and their results according to
game’s rules. On the other hand, he is responsible for story’s unfolding. He has to
describe the environment and to interpret the set of non-player characters (NPC). As a consequence, he produces a frame for the story and adapts it to player’s actions.”

Delmas, G., Champagnat, R. and Augeraud, M., 2009.

The theme of my game design project will be based on the existing lore of the D&D universe, which takes inspiration from Tolkien fantasy. I’m currently dreaming up a world and narrative for the adventure module and seeking inspiration from online campaigns that are live streamed or recorded and uploaded by the game master. One of my favourite online campaign series is Critical Role, run by voice actor Matt Mercer. I’m definitely interested in creating some pre-made character sheets for new players who are unfamiliar with the D&D system, or veterans who would like to jump in straight away without needing to create their own character first. I’m interested in a narrative that involves a band of outcasts or misunderstood ruffians who come upon the dark secrets of a sleepy village (or two) by chance. They’re left with a choice of covering up the corruption, or putting an end to it. D&D’s alignment system will be handy in this situation.

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My main concern with this project was the logistics of testing the adventure module and receiving feedback while in self-isolation due to the current global pandemic. I’ve been looking into online solutions, including the virtual tabletop website Roll20, and a variety of D&D bots for Discord servers. I plan to test combat encounters and exploration sections of the adventure with friends, and get feedback about my module manual online from other TRPG fans through discussion forums like Reddit. Since I plan to keep the adventure as brief enough to fit a ‘one-off’ campaign, meaning it can be completed over one or few play sessions, I may also be able to do complete play-throughs with different groups of players. Then, from those experiences I can flesh out areas I feel required more preparation and planning that I had not previously considered.

General Project Timeline

Week 6 – 7: Apply pitch feedback to my project and develop the game narrative + explore resources and tutorials for creating a D&D adventure.

Week 8 – 9: Start prototyping and testing the adventure module.

Week 10 – 11: Apply beta feedback and findings from the first rounds of testing to the adventure module.

Week 12 – 13: Final testing of the prototype and working on the project dossier

References;
Cover, J.A.G., 2005. ‘Tabletop Role-Playing Games: Perspectives from Narrative, Game, and Rhetorical Theory’.
Delmas, G., Champagnat, R. and Augeraud, M., 2009. ‘From tabletop RPG to interactive storytelling: definition of a story manager for videogames’. Joint international conference on interactive digital storytelling (pp. 121-126).

Tabletop Trials; the art of social deduction

Social deduction games are games in which some or all players’ roles are unknown. While the win condition varies from game to game, players can use logic and deduction to figure out the roles of others and gain a tactical advantage. This means players will often bluff to prevent suspicion.

I have a close friend who loves tabletop games so before commencing my study of game experience design I had already played a few social deduction games; The Resistance, Coup, and of course the popular party game Mafia using a deck of standard playing cards. I had also played an online variant of Mafia called Town of SalemPersonally, I have never been a big fan of this genre. I realise that this is probably because I am terrible at the strategic aspects of social deduction, so I almost never win these games (and, really… who doesn’t want to win?). However, I can still enjoy myself while playing some variants of social deduction games without winning. I tend to favour hidden role and deduction games with more mechanics and structure, instead of a game like Mafia where I have to simply talk my way out of suspicion.

 

Ultimate Werewolf 

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The game experience closest to Mafia was a popular variation called Ultimate Werewolf designed by Ted Alspach and published by Bézier Games. There are two teams; the villagers and the werewolves. The villagers’ goal is to ‘lynch’ all werewolves that have invaded their village, and the werewolves’ goal is to ‘kill’ villagers one at a time until they are outnumbered. Each player is given a hidden role that is aligned with either the villagers or the werewolves, and some will have special abilities or unique motivations to win. There are ‘day’ and ‘night’ turns in which players discuss and eliminate other players based on their assigned role. The game is run by a moderator who does not play for either team.

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The mechanics of the game can be very complex when multiple special roles are introduced, but we played a simplified version with only werewolves, villagers, and a seer. There are not many physical pieces in this game; only a deck of role cards to be distributed to players. Gameplay is enacted through discussion and collective player choices that are facilitated through the game moderator.

On the box, this game claims to be for “up to 75 players”Having played hidden role games like this one before, I found that the larger group was way too chaotic and confusing for me in comparison to the usual 5-10 players. This made it difficult to feel meaningfully involved in the game, especially as a villager with limited agency. That said, I am not a huge fan of Mafia, or in this case Werewolves, as a hidden role game to begin with which may have already predisposed my game experience. I found the artwork and theme of Werewolves perfect for the mystery and hysteria of a hidden role game like Mafia, and its villager-versus-supernatural-threat narrative is similar to Town of Salem and the witch trials.

 

Coup

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Coup is a hidden role game designed by Rikki Tahta and published by Indie Boards & Cards. It requires revealing all other players’ roles, referred to as ‘influence’, to win. Each player is given two influence role cards with their own set of unique abilities and take turns to enact various actions with those cards or ‘coins’ accumulated on previous turns. Players can also choose to bluff which cards they have in their possession to gain an advantage. Each action taken by the player gives others the opportunity to ‘challenge’ and catch their bluff, resulting in the loss of one influence card.

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Coup can be played using high-risk, high-reward mind games, or with a more safe but slow method. There are many different mechanics and combinations at play that reflect good strategic depth. Although the rules may seem complex at first, once the initial entry barrier is overcome the game’s effective simplicity becomes more apparent.

Because I had played this game before, I had the task of explaining the gameplay to others in a way that was easy enough to understand. I described Coup as “kinda like the game Cheat (read; Bullshit) but with more steps”. Although the experience was great overall, I found that I again had a similar preference for smaller groups of players, just like I had with Werewolves. I personally find that tracking and deducing is just much easier with less players on the board. The artwork and theme of this game are also well-executed and would be especially interesting to any fans of The Resistance universe, though I feel as though the way gameplay mechanics are tied into the narrative could be improved. While playing this game, I don’t get as immersed in the playspace and role I have been assigned as I do in Werewolves or Town of Salem.

 

Takeaways from this experience

There were aspects of both social deduction games that I liked and disliked. While I preferred the gameplay of Coup to Werewolves, I enjoyed the theme and collaborative roleplay aspects of Werewolves much more than the lacking narrative-gameplay relationship in Coup. If I were to design my own social deduction or hidden role game, I would like to focus on creating something with the depth of strategy and simplicity of Coup that also has the fun, immersive aspects of Werewolves by encouraging players to really get into character.

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Game Media Digital Artefact; Let’s Play FFIV Remakes

I’ve been working on a “Let’s Play” series of Final Fantasy IV (1991). This game has a special place in my heart; it was one of the first games to make me realise while growing up that video games are media texts capable of telling complex, compelling narratives just like film, television, and other forms of digital media. However, I believe that if it weren’t for my encounter with the Nintendo DS remake (2007) of this classic SNES game, I probably would have never played a single Final Fantasy game in all my life. For this reason, I wanted to make a digital artefact that analyses the intertextual value of remaking classic video games on newer platforms with increased software and hardware capabilities. The “Let’s Play” format allows me to share my own meaningful FFIV experience with an online audience that features comment, praise and critique on each of my selected remakes. Hopefully I am creating a valuable media paratext with social utility for fans of the Final Fantasy series, and also for newcomers who wish to learn about the Final Fantasy games and their stories.

Active audience members, fans in particular, challenge media researchers to look not only at their consumption of the primary object of interest but also at how fans interact with other fans, how they make sense of their interests, how their interest is sustained through intertextual means, and how they go beyond mere consumption to active production of media of their own that comment on, praise, and critique the media products that so interest them.

Consalvo, M. (2003). Zelda 64 and Video Game Fans: A Walkthrough of Games, Intertextuality, and Narrative. Television & New Media, 4(3), 321–334. 

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Research

After settling on my concept, I began to research my topic by gathering any useful sources of information that would help in forming an analytical framework and guide my digital creation process. I started by reading popular news articles from game media websites ([1], [2], [3]) about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ video game remakes. These lists mostly outlined reasons for and against remakes in terms of each game’s formal elements; graphics, sound, gameplay features, controls, characters, narrative etc. Although this structuralist approach is essential to the appraisal of a remake, there is also a post-structuralist layer beneath the surface that is important in understanding why changes to the game’s formal elements are considered either ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

I decided to gather some primary data by polling fans of the Final Fantasy series on Reddit (r/finalfantasy), in two threads that can be found here and here. There were many different responses reflecting individual player experiences.

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I also looked at an interview with the original lead designer of Final Fantasy IV, Takashi Tokita, which discusses the PSP remake release. It provided rich insight into the development of this version and how it aimed to capture the integrity of the original while still enhancing the experience, something that I found through my primary research is important to many fans when assessing a remake.

Finally, David Heineman’s (2014) analysis of public memory, retrogaming, and nostalgia was useful in understanding why players enjoy and anticipate remakes. It allows them to revisit an aspect of shared public memory with a fresh coat of paint and quality of life improvements designed to enhance an experience that already is avidly replayed in retrogaming communities. This essay also briefly touches on emulation, a method of replaying old video games on PC that transforms the experience with new features (save states, romhacking, fast-forward). Because of these convenient features and ease of recording footage through console emulation, I chose to use this method when creating my “Let’s Play”.

What is interesting about nostalgia in video gaming is that re-released games do, in a sense, afford players the possibility to return to an exact same “home,” a virtual environment that was present when they originally played a particular game.

Purchasing a used Nintendo Entertainment System and playing the original Final Fantasy game more than twenty years after it was initially released results in a much different kind of nostalgic experience (one that requires one’s physical and mental attention) than can be provided by more passive nostalgic media experiences, such as viewing a film or playing records.

Retrogaming communities facilitate shared reminiscences about those “homes” to which participants continually return.

Heineman, David. (2014). Public Memory and Gamer Identity: Retrogaming as Nostalgia. Journal of Games Criticism, 1(1), 1–24.

 

Analytical Framework

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The design of my analytical framework was guided by Clara Fernández-Vara’s Introduction to Game Analysis and my research.

Firstly, my goal is to unpack the intertextual value of remakes for two different types of players; those who have played the original game, and those who have not. It is clear that my approach to appraising a remake should change under this condition, as it represents a shift in context surrounding the player’s experience. For example, with Final Fantasy IV, a fan will play the remake and assess it in relation to their personal experience with the original game. However, a newcomer will go through the meaning-making process differently. The value of a Final Fantasy IV remake to newcomers could be found in the ease of accessibility when released on newer platforms, or in any other changes and updates that help lower the entry barrier.

After considering the context surrounding player experiences and the socio-cultural environment in which the remake was released, I analyse the player experience itself. This is a post-structuralist look into how the remakes are received by players. My “Let’s Play” will act as a shared and documented player experience that pays careful attention to each remake in relation to each other and the original game. While doing so, I will be mindful of acknowledging player experiences and opinions that are different to my own, based on my primary research from Reddit and other fan forums.

Which brings me to the final point of my triangulation, the changes made in each remake’s formal elements. These will be observed through comparison, and then discussed in relation to the context and player experience. In Final Fantasy IV, the most relevant of these formal elements are the graphics (backgrounds and character sprites/portraits), music, difficulty, battle system, localisation (script), and various smaller gameplay features.

 

Methodology and Progress

I had originally intended to upload this “Let’s Play” series to the Twitch streaming platform, though later changed to YouTube instead. I outlined my reasons for this change in my project beta; the game did not suit the live stream format due to long periods of repeated grinding and dungeon crawling that halted progression through the game’s narrative, and it was also alienating my existing aggregated Twitch audience (I usually live stream competitive digital card games and tournaments). This was apparent through a lack of initial engagement with my digital artefact.

Now, by cutting and editing my “Let’s Play” footage I am able to create an abridged and cinematic experience for my viewers. The first episode of my series, uploaded to YouTube and then shared both on Twitter and Reddit, received significantly more engagement than my live streams. I even got a few subscribers on my brand new channel. The only issue I’ve run into so far is low audience retention, which is likely due to having about 2-3 minutes of just analysis and discussion about the remake at the beginning of the video. I plan to change this in future by moving that content to the video description, and instead jumping straight into gameplay. I’d also like to improve my video thumbnails, using other popular “Let’s Play” channels as a reference point.

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Audience Retention

I am emulating three different versions of FFIV on my PC and recording my footage with Open Broadcaster Software. This footage is then edited in Sony Vegas and uploaded to my YouTube channel. Each episode is about 25 minutes long. Between each episode, I seamlessly switch to a different FFIV remake, picking up from exactly where I left in the previous episode. In order to achieve this, I have to play through each version up to my desired game state and then create a save file at this point. Although it sounds tricky, I have made a written plan of the exact points in the narrative I want to stop and start at so that I can prepare save files ahead of time. This method also benefits greatly from the console emulators’ save-state and fast-forward features.

 

Conclusion and Reflection

After receiving feedback for my beta, I aimed to integrate more course concepts into my media analysis. The Heineman reading about nostalgia and retrogaming was very relevant and useful to my topic. When discussing how some gamers prefer 2D sprites to 3D character models from some remakes, or changes to the game’s musical score due to hardware limitations, I was able to apply concepts relating to shared public memory and the re-visiting of familiar virtual spaces and how they facilitate a nostalgic, retrogaming community. I have also been using passive audience engagement as a feedback loop, with an increase in views, likes and subscribers indicating a successful iteration cycle for my project. Overall, I am very happy with the trajectory of my digital artefact, and I feel like I’ve laid the foundations of a project I’d like to continue outside of this subject. My digital literacy in video-editing has definitely improved, as previously I’ve only ever done live streams with very minimal time spent video-editing my own projects. As for how I’d approach this idea differently next time, I found it difficult to increase the depth of my analysis throughout my “Let’s Play” commentary, as I was focused on gameplay and using a casual tone. I think this project would benefit from a supplementary blog post or video essay that clearly outlined my main arguments about the value of each remake.

prototyping the “let’s play” shuffle; even a lack of engagement is useful feedback

 

Following up on my Digital Artefact pitch; After prototyping two live-streams on my Twitch channel, I’ve made a few changes to my format, though my concept remains intact. I’ve further developed my analytical framework using Clara Fernández-Vara’s book Introduction to Game Analysis’ as a guide. 

Unfortunately, my Twitch chat was entirely dead for both streams, and I peaked at 4 unique viewers. It seems despite already aggregating an audience for my channel, the drastic difference in content did not appeal to any of my 55 followers. I can’t say much about how effective sharing the event on my socials was either. I have decided the live-stream format won’t work for this ‘Let’s Play’ series. By attaching the episodes to a schedule and trying to encourage live discussion, I am also (inadvertently) discouraging engagement with the video after the broadcast as well. Many people will miss the live stream due to time zones or their own personal schedules, not all potential viewers will catch the Twitch VOD (video on demand), and having long sections of my streams without any commentary lessens the quality of the content when watching it ‘un-live’ on YouTube re-uploads.

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Screenshot from one stream. The large blank space to the right of the gameplay window was for two reasons; a) I didn’t want to stretch the resolution of the GameBoy emulator too much as the image would possibly be blurry or lower quality, b) the empty space was meant to be accommodating an embedded live chat, that did not get used at all 😔 meaning that on a YouTube video episode, this layout looks awkward and has too much negative space.

Initially I considered changing the format to an entirely different one, such as critical blog posts or a video essay series. However, a comment on my DA pitch prompted me to research further into the ‘Let’s Play’ subculture. I found an article by Burwell and Miller in the E-Learning and Digital Media journal that explores the ‘Let’s Play’ genre and its function as a gaming paratext. They argue that LP’s allow commentary and analysis that develops gaming literacy.

“In recent years, a great deal of scholarly work has been done to consider video games as productive sites for the development of creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving and collaborative skills (e.g., Gee, 2003Hayes and Duncan, 2012Steinkuehler, 2007). This work has challenged the video game’s reputation as a mindless diversion, and has instead shown that games encourage thinking and learning, and play an important role in the production of cultural capital amongst young people. Much of this work explores games as a form of literacy.”

“Inherent in the Let’s Play video is an invitation to viewers to join in the game play; here, we invite the reader to see the complex meaning-making and social practices associated with this emerging paratext.”

– Burwell, C., & Miller, T. (2016).

After reading this article, I was assured that I would be able to effectively use the LP genre as my DA format when analysing and making meaning of the Final Fantasy games. I’ve decided that YouTube seems to be the most appropriate platform for an LP series as twitch channels often fall into either competitive or social streamer categories, the latter requiring lots of time to build-up an engaged and loyal viewership. I’ll be editing and cutting down my gameplay footage to make my commentary more consistent, reduce long periods of level grinding, and overall make the LP more abridged and cinematic. Finally, I’ve chosen to split the game into six episodes of three ‘acts’, with each ‘act’ being played as one of three different versions of the game.

 

References

Burwell, C., & Miller, T. (2016). Let’s Play: Exploring literacy practices in an emerging videogame paratext. E-Learning and Digital Media13(3–4), 109–125.

Fernández-Vara, C. (2015). Introduction to Game Analysis. 1st ed. New York, NY: Routledge.