Full Indie 2016 : Let’s get physical – lessons from the real world

Zach Gage shared with us some things he has learnt from making physical games to re-use in video games. I’ve collected some of the rich thoughts from his talk on card, dice and billiard.

I found his comments on handling randomness and adapting incentives to player skill particularly interesting. On top of gameplay ideas, I like the idea of making board games to experiment with video game mechanics as a cost-effective way to learn from a concept before writing a single line of code.

Why make physical games as an indie developer ?

Test fresh ideas and build only on the best

Making physical games is accessible to anyone and allows to quickly prototype game mechanics of any depth. Similarly to roleplaying, making board games is quick to set up and allows to try out many ideas, systems and mechanics before writing a single line of code.

This is perfect for some early needfinding and iterating on a game concept during pre-production. Playtesting your idea on a board game version will help you focus development efforts on the fun and proven aspects of your gameplay.

Learn from physical games

A lot of mecanics in video games are derived from board, card and other physical genres. As described in another talk at this very same full indie summit, decomposing physical games as a deliberate practice helps gain deeper understanding of game mecanics. Porting those concepts to your game will improve your game design skills and help think outside the box.

Now let’s have a look at some of the insights zach shared with us.

Insights from designing card games

Card games can be divided in two types : Full deck, or Partial deck games.

Handling card counting in full deck games

If you design full deck games, you’ll have to handle card counting.

For those who, like me, didn’t know how card counting works : card counting doesn’t involve remembering all cards that have been played and will be played. When counting cards you actually add or substract one to a total depending upon categories of cards you have seen played. For example, if you add one for high cards and substract one for low cards, then if the score you remember is very high, it’s more likely you’ll get smaller cards in the future.

If there is a chance players can count cards, assume they will. You can either embrace the fact, and build it in your game mecanics. If a player needs to chose a hidden card from two decks and your game support card counting, you should probably just let the player see the cards, rather than rely on guessing.

If your game is countable and you really don’t want players to, make it very impractical. For example, varying the number of cards that are being dealt or played makes card counting less effective.

Handling randomness in partial deck games

In Partial deck games, you’ll have to handle randomness. The same way as for card counting, you can either embrace the randomness or compensate it. To compensate randomness, one fun and efficient way to manage it is to give players opportunities for bluffing.

Insights from designing dice games

Giving context to random decisions

It is common belief that randomness should never decide, because it is not fun. The thing is, deciding things at random isn’t what removes the fun from a game. What matters most in making the game fun is how much the player cares about the result.

Zach encourages us to not fear randomness, but give it context instead.

Creating meaningful randomness in Tharsis

Tharsis is a game where the player rolls dice, and can decide where to spend the points from each die. For some actions, you need one die of each, for others high scores is better, other actions again favor lower scores.

Before playing, the player needs to come up with multiple plans, rather than one, to account for the randomness. For the first roll, the player can just switch to plan B. As the dice rolls fail to give the player what he was hoping for, the stakes of the rolls ramp up, making the game very engaging. At the last roll, the stakes are pretty high.

Insights from designing billiard Games

In a billiard game, players constantly balance the risks they’re willing to take for a bigger reward with the skills they have to pull off the move they need to win.

Balancing incentives to take risks is critical to make a fun billiard game. If you place too much incentive on hard moves, novice players will try to make those moves without even being aware they don’t have the skill to achieve them.

Placing a very obvious high points bonus on a tricky move will frustrate novice players. They’ll fail repeatedly without being aware that it’s because they set the difficulty too high for themselves.

To help players set realistic goals for themselves, players shouldn’t notice incentives for complex moves before they’re able to perform them successfully.

Novice players will first focus on sinking a ball, then later think about placing the  ball in a favorable way for their next move when sinking a ball, and finally take in account the opportunities to screw their opponent should they fail at creating a favorable situation for themselves.