Social Status and Character Creation in Larp.

Social status is an interesting issue in many U.S. combat larps. Some game systems leave it up to the players to write their status into the character backstory. Some have elaborate game mechanics which allow the purchase of status with experience. But lots of games have no official way to limit players from claiming any title they want (however silly that title may be). Many players abuse this and tell extremely similar stories. Games overflow with ‘Counts’, ‘Dukes’, and the brothers, nephews and sons of titled nobility who come complete with some kind of tragic backstory.

Many players also tend to ignore the interesting down to earth stories, and instead shoot straight for the Eurocentric Feudal landed caste. Occasionally players choose an Asian style Feudal landed caste to spice things up. This similarity of story is frustrating, limiting, and not all that fun. I’ve attempted to address this lack of depth with a character creation system based on group dynamics. It can generate nobility, but far more often produces ‘salt of the earth’ type folks. Today let’s address the game mechanics of a social system.

Title usually has the connotation of control over some aspect of the game world. To claim to be a duke means to claim you have the power of a duchy sitting around somewhere. To earn a title, and the power that comes with it, the player should do something more than simply make a statement. Additionally, simple attendance over a long period of time should not earn a title. Persona are expected to attempt to survive, they don’t need to be rewarded for doing so. To earn title a player should do more than just wait and survive.

Larps need tons of resources to pull off which leads some games to award extra experience for help with acquiring the material and people needed to host interesting plot lines. But when you can pay experience for social status this can walk a dangerous line of paying for a title. This can in turn implicitly or explicitly turn into ‘pay to play’. Paying money/time to earn power in a game. No game designer is ever comfortable with that.

In game title should be awarded for in game benefits. There should be out of game benefits for out of game contributions. This prevents a new player from showing up, dumping a bunch of materials or money on a game system, and getting a shiny new title day one.

So what can players provide in character that should earn them respect and control over a portion of the game world? My favorite solution to this problem is to provide title to players who bring new players into the game system and who can teach those players the ropes. The player gaining the title has had to do something of social significance to the game system in order to earn a title of social significance. This idea was implemented to great effect by W. T. Armstrong and Johnathan Daniels in their Imperium Larp system, in which I played for many years.

The system consisted of ‘Houses’ as the basic unit of the social world. Each year there was an event at which a census was held. The members of each house wear the color of that house and are counted. The size of the houses determine the social status of the House Leader. A player who can pull together 20 people would have more social status than a player who can only get 10 people to work together. Increasing the number of players makes the game more fun for all involved. Social status becomes a sliding scale, rather than an ever increasing ‘stat’.

Ideally this encourages system growth in a way not many other methods do. Quickly houses attract the existing player base into their houses. Once existing players are aligned into houses to gain more power the players have to recruit more people and retain their loyalty. Smart houses who want to thrive have to start recruiting and training new players.  This benefits the game system by gathering more players.

As the player is recruiting out of game, the persona is recruiting in game. As more PC’s step up and go adventuring the house leader gains more power. They gain title to befit the actions they have taken, not the claims they have made. Your character can’t prove being a duke day 1 with no one at your back. But if you and 30 other players all claim your a duke, well that’s more believable. Particularly if they are armed.

One of the best aspects of Larp is community. When polled most players report that the people involved are what keep them coming back again and again. Real combat may form life long bonds, but even fake combat builds strong friendships between players. Leveraging the best aspects of larp while linking recruitment and growth to in game rewards can produce very good results.

This concept of ‘Houses for Everything’ can be combined nicely with the 4x larp. You may notice some connections already forming. Over the course of the next few blog posts, I’ll combine all these disparate concepts into a game system. The next step is to build a master index of concepts. Some of which have been covered recently. Then I’ll start writing up some of the sections not yet covered and really dive into the rules that make a 4x larp.

How have you implemented a social system in a larp? Tweet me with a reply. Or leave a comment with Google Plus. If you want to chat in person, swing by practice. We’re on hold for the winter, but come spring our Facebook Group will start coordinating again.

Metrics Driven Game Design

Zynga has defended the idea that designing a game heavily based on metrics input is a winning strategy.   Although no one likes the idea of what the output is after that process.  The popular trope around the indie game world is a general feeling of distaste for the kind of game that gets produced by putting in more numbers based feedback rather than human based feedback.

So when the company is game design, it makes sense to track as much information as possible.  And not use it inside the game.  Games have to be fun.  Making games mechanically for the “lowest common denominator” among hundreds (hopefully thousands) of players does not make a fun game.  This LCD effect of designing for very large audience prunes out errors and issue, quirks, of the game.  You get something with pretty art that plays like Farmville.

Metrics are still necessary; especially for a game design start-up company.  But I want to argue that they are not important in the same way.  Metrics are best used to design the company around the game, instead of the game itself.  As the ‘business guy’ I can tell you it’s hard to run a company without metrics.  Every company tracks something about itself.  Old companies track income and expenses.  Newer companies have a whole host of company metrics.  Running a company would be impossible without tracking data about how that company is run.

Games should be fun.  They should have quirks.  They should not be ground out of huge player bases but should be made with devotion by passionate developers.  Avoid the “LCD”, lowest common denominator.  Go ahead and collect the metrics for the game.  Use those metrics to build the company, not to drive game development.

Ichiro Abroad

If you haven’t had a chance to yet, pop over to this Gamasutra article and give it a read.  Some really great basic advice, subtle yet powerful.  Short post today due to high call volume in the call center.  The new full time gig is taking up a lot of time, and there may be a big announcement coming soon, which will take up all the rest of the time.  Also, if you just love Ichiro, here is his advice on going to GDC…  Even if you just go to the vicinity of GDC it might be worth it.

What is the value of a good story?

What makes the D&D brand compelling?  What makes it valuable?  The game is valuable because it is a system of creating emotional meaning to the players (players find it fun and enjoy playing).  The best DM’s are those who can invest meaning in the worlds they create and then use that meaning to emotionally affect the players.  Likewise the best games are those that can invoke an emotional response.  The best way to do that is to create a meaningful game world.  How much is a good story worth in game design?

This Fast Company article discusses ways to measure the value of a good story in quantifiable amounts.  Without this kind of research it would be impossible (and has been difficult) to really value the kind of ‘Good Will’ generated by branding.  Usually you pay X number of dollars to someone to create a brand, so on the balance sheet you record it as being worth X.  But often the value of a good story is worth more than simply the cost of creating that story.

Ultimately product branding in the real world is not much different from great storytelling.  Take an object, say a stapler.  Not terribly valuable until you need to fix two pieces of paper together.  But what if that stapler on my desk is a Red Swingline Stapler?  That red Swingline stapler (something which was not on sale before the move Office Space) was so compelling it became a product you can buy.  Normal object  + meaningful story = increased sales of staplers.

How does a game company measure the value of the story the game designer has created?  This work directly applies to game companies because it allows the business end of the company to evaluate the value of the developers in a more resolute way then they have been able to in the past.    Imagine trying to calculate the value of the HALO story.  Not the franchise, the story.  How much should you charge if someone else wants to license the intellectual property you have created?

Imbue your games with good stories and you make them intrinsically more valuable.  Leave off storytelling and you run the risk of having a great game mechanic that no one is really interested in.  It would be fascinating to see a company A/B test this in the online marketplace.  How would you design the experiment to reveal the value of a story in your game?

Razer Blade: Disruptive Technology that has missed the mark.

Razer released a full page Wall Street Journal ad telling us all the obvious. PC Gaming is not dead. Thanks. Mojang and I agree with you Razer. They made that claim as a teaser for the release of the Blade. A very thin, very portable gaming laptop. They must not have done much market research as they touted it as “the world’s first true gaming laptop.” Or perhaps they just don’t feel that Alienware machines are up to par.

Either way what’s remarkable beyond the terrible advertising, is the “Switchblade User Interface”. That little extra set of buttons and touch pad in the lower right corner of the Laptop. Almost like a mouse, but not quite.

This is an innovative product, perhaps even a ‘disruptive’ one. You can tell by the number of comments on various sites like Ars Technica (Great article Ben!), The Escapist Magazine, and Reddit that the community is divided. ‘Passionate discourse’ is a sure sign of disruption. That is exactly what a company wants in a product launch. The company wants half the people to love it (and buy it) and the other half to hate it (but not stop talking about it). It is a ‘good sign’ for the company that there are so many people making a fuss about this laptop.

However there are some things going on here which are amiss. They have missed the market(ing) for this device by a lot. Their WSJ add suggests a sort of ubiquitous gaming device that will ‘reinvigorate pc gaming’, but asking a very high price tag for it in a very bad economy. Any reasonable PC gamer with $2800 in their pocket is going to build a liquid cooled device with 6x 3.2 gig cores. Their brand narrative and their price point are at odds with each other. Learn from this my fellow business gamers.

These devices should have been put in the hands of a really competent WoW/FPS coder, and let them come up with a really swanky mod before release. Or perhaps sold to pro or semi pro game players. To stay at the present price point, their marketing should have targeted the ‘prestige class’ of gamers. They needed to do this because they need ‘early adopters’ who are capable of purchasing an expensive product.

All in all this could eventually be a big win for Razer, but in the near term the Blade will be a big flop. Razer has not respected “The Chasm“. They are trying to market disruptive (expensive) technology to every gamer. They should have sold it to the innovators first. This would allow some sales at this higher price point. Some sales, plus time would allow for refined manufacturing that lowers the cost of the I/O device before targeting the majority of gamers.

Instead they attempted to make a huge splash with the general gaming audience (and all readers of the Wall Street Journal). New tech is always expensive. But technology always lowers in price over time. This new input device is incredibly expensive, right now. For $2800 you get an under powered laptop… Using Alienware/Dell‘s website you can build a comparable machine for $1,649. That means that Razer is currently asking approximately $1151 for just the Switchblade UI. That is a huge percentage of the cost of the machine for a user interface that may not have any additional software functionality yet.

Then again the general PC Gamers may not be the target audience. Perhaps large corporations are the target audience. Lets assume for a minute that they actually know about “The Chasm”. Picking the WSJ to announce to the world that Razer is an innovative and disruptive company in a huge industry (I attempted to look for laptop sales figures, but was unable to find anything relevant, any help finding that data would be appreciated). Maybe they are playing a different game then we think they are. They could be really tricky, or really dumb.

I like the statements made by the CEO and Creative Director of Razer, Min-Liang Tan. They purchased their own Taiwanese company to produce the device. They use no focus groups in the design, they rely solely on making a device that they themselves want to game with. (All that quoted from ArsTechnica article previously linked, again thank you Ben.) Far from being a negative, in my mind this means they are directly in touch with the community. That means that when feedback hits them (and it will hit them hard), it wont be filtered through a third party. These are exactly the kind of things that disruptive companies do, and exactly the kind of thing that they need to do. While PC gaming was never truly dead, I hope this is a rebirth of Razer’s innovation. They just need to understand the difference between manufacturing technology and creating innovative technology. Razer does not get the difference yet.

The Adwords Experiment

Google was nice enough to send me a free $100 gift card for Adwords.  For anyone unfamiliar Adwords is the tool that lets you place ads in Googles search results.  You create an ad, and then bid on keywords.  The amount of competition, and your bid, determines if Google users see your ad or not.  For some keywords the competition can be fierce.  They keywords for most game related projects, however, remain very low in competition.

This ‘windfall’ represents the total marketing budget of The ZoRTS Project.  Instead of advertising a game which doesn’t exist yet it seemed like a better idea to get the word out about this blog.  The real goal is building a community of folks who can tell me when I’m saying something stupid (always appreciated) about game design.  This way the project benefits from more knowledge then I currently posses.  Also learning how Adwords works should be a marketable skill in this day and age, right?

Upon getting the gift card my first step was to contact thetrafficblogger and asked his advice.  He is my go to guy for all things blogging and social media related.  His suggestion was to start a campaign with as many keywords as possible, that have low competition, and start by bidding $.01 on clicks.  Thus began ‘The Adwords Experiment’.

The Goal: Get 10,000 hits using $100
Whoa!?!  That is a lot of hits, where did that number come from?  That goal came from TheTrafficBlogger himself.  Maybe he tossed it out randomly.  Or maybe from the point of view of a professional blogger that should be a reasonable number, he must get 10,000 hits a post…  But for a newbie like me?  It is quite the challenge.  But why not a randomly chosen big goal?  Right.  Jump in feet first!

The Method:
Week 1: One cent per click. Started July 14th to July 21st
Week 2: Two cents per click. July 22nd to July 28th
Week 3: Three center per click. July 29th to Aug 4th
Week 4: Four cents per click.  Aug 5th to Aug 11th

Now I will also be spreading the word about in other ways at the same time.  This behavior would loose points in the scientific world.  But as this is a completely new blog, its fair to allow for other traffic sources.  At the moment Reddit is my biggest source of traffic.  There could be some expansion from Empire Avenue readers.  It will also be very easy to figure out which hits came from where. So the analysis can include both with Reddit, and without.

First Hypothisis:
There is some cheap ‘magic number’ that will get me enough hits to break even between Adwords and Adsense.

Second Hypothisis:
There is some even more magic number which will net me a little profit for my trouble.

The Conclusion:
10,000 hits using only $100?  That is definitely a challenge.  We shall see if the final tally comes anywhere close.  Before collecting the data, I have no idea what to expect.  But imagine if that could be done!  Regardless of how the experiment goes over all, I’m sure this is a valuable learning experience.

There is a post qued up for tommorrow with some general thoughts and a couple things noticed about Adwords.  Expect additional posts as more is learned about Adwords.  Keep checking back for updates on the experiments progress.  Each week will get recapped on a Tuesday as an additional blog post!  As always ask questions if there is something that hasn’t been explained well.  Those kinds of questions really help me curate the blog, and help make sure the blog posts make sense as well as provide valuable information.  If you can think of anything that should be added to the experiment, comment below.

Game idea != Product

Scott McMillian, formerly head of MacGuffin Games, gave another great presentation at Boston Post Mortem Wednesday night.  It was a second showing of “Death of an Indie Studio”, a post mortem discussion the rise and fall of his own small business.  There should be audio and perhaps video of the entire presentation coming along soon.  Which will be really valuable to get the nuance of some of his statements (the art and business continuum, for example).  For now you can find my notes and links to the slides.  The official post from Boston Post Mortem is now up, with more visual goodness!

One of the points that he makes is Art != Business.  Additionally he sites the old “Time = Money” and lends his personal experiance to it.  He describes what he means very well, so I will not try to add any more.  However there are a couple logical relationships that add to his points.

  • Game idea != Product
  • Product != Company
Many gamers have a great game idea.  Experienced game developers frequently scoff, and don’t jump on board.  Why is that?  There are a couple very good reasons.  A great idea is not a product.  You can’t make money off a product that doesn’t exist. It takes time, effort, and no small amount of stress to take 1000 great ideas and make them a game.  Professional Game Devs often have great game ideas faster then they can actually make a single game.  So understand that if you are a gamer with a great idea for a game, you still don’t have anything.  A prototype on the other hand…  Now that’s progress.

Similar to that is something that my Project Management professor drilled it into our heads.  In actuality he just mentioned it and we all accepted and understood it as sage wisdom.  This man is so experienced that he uttered sage wisdom with even passing remarks.  And he’s a damn good lumber jack too (I’m not kidding).  You really must have a product (or service) before you can make revenue.  The plan for a project that will create a computer game is not a company.  The execution of the plan can result in revenue, but not always.  The silver lining here is that if you want to create a computer game, you do not need to create a company to do so.

Scott has been searching for a way to state this more elegantly.  Just because you have a game idea, does not mean you need to start a company.  Understand that start up business fail frequently.  New computer game projects also fail frequently.  If you take the plunge and gather funds to start a company, and fail, you have lost whatever money you put into the company.  Sometimes you lose other peoples money.  Starting a project is less involved then starting a company, and does not require raising capital (i.e. Debt).  If the project fails, you are not saddled with paying off the debts that would be incurred by closing a company.  You have most likely still learned a ton.

Gamers are lucky in that creating games is more of an art.  The tools you need to start making games are very easy to acquire.  Anyone with knowledge (or the ability to learn), and persistence can make a game.  But unless you really want to start a company staying a hobbyist is a really great idea.  It may take more time, but you won’t lose other peoples money.

Cheap game design

Hypothetically lets assume you’re a gamer with an idea for a game.  This should be easy to imagine.  You want to make a game but have no money.  Once you have chosen your team, and gotten some idea of what you are building (with a game design document), and picked your distribution/coding platform, you realize that you need to keep track of a lot of different kinds of information.  Specifically bug and issue tracking.

There are many great services out there with the ability to track issues, but there is another method which is often overlooked.  You can build your own bug tracker using  As we were starting the ZoRTS project the Lead Coder asked me to find bug tracker to use.  As a manager on a project with no money something with low cost is ideal.  The following video on youtube provided the answer.


  • Works with other Google services
  • Cheap! As in free.
  • Hand built to do exactly what you need it to do.


  • There are other methods which may be better
    • Basecamp (Which the ZoRTS project would like to use)
    • Assembla (Which the ZoRTS project is using)
    • 50 others.

There are a couple factors left out of the pros and cons.  For example using as your issue tracker takes effort to build and maintain.  You have to have and idea of what kinds of things you need to track ahead of time, and how the page is going to be used.  The ZoRTS website includes an example page so that you can get an idea of the kinds of columns that you might need.  However this is a moot point as you still need to spend time and effort updating and recording in any bug tracker.  It might just take a minute or two more to use google sites.

So what do you use to provide an infrastructure for communication of issues, bugs, design changes?  Why do you like to work with it?  If you have experience in the area please leave a comment below, let us know your opinion.

Woot! Ars Technica, FTW.

Thanks Ars Technica, I was looking for charts and information about overworking employees.  Great article today* from AT about overtime and crunch time.  With links to research that was pioneered by Henry Fords company around the 1900’s.  Which makes it both impossible to read and some of the oldest scientific research we have about work.  Be warned, it does not read well for those not versed in scientific research or 1900 speak.


  • The 40 hour work week is an intentional construct based on research into human productivity.
  • Overtime gives you a temporary boost in productivity, when used sparingly.
  • Prolonged overtime drives productivity DOWN.
  • Humans will voluntarily overwork themselves even when its not good for the project because they want the money.

So watch out passionate game designers.  Pay attention to your work/life balance.  Watch Penny Arcade TV to see  a group that spends tons of time at the office, but has a blast doing it.  Work hard, play hard.  With just a touch more play time, then work time.

Comment below if you feel this is interesting or stupid.  Also let me know if you are interested in research posts. Highly technical posts might not be terribly interesting.

*[Blog posts are written in advance, their post appeared about four days before the date this post went live.]

Basic Project Management is important.

Although failure is always an option, and something we should learn from, what are some things that we can do to reduce failure?  Two tips tied together into one: Deadlines and Feedback.

Not everyone has taken on Project Management as a studied discipline which is unfortunate as some of the tactics a project manager will use can be really handy when making a computer game.  Any good business college will have you take at least one class in PM, and you might walk out of it with a PMBOK (Project Managers Body of Knowledge).  As an Amateur Computer Game Designer you most likely will not need every piece of information in the PMBOK, but you can still benefit from a couple points that project managers are fond of.  They also happen to be popular advice among Indie game developers.

During his talk at PAX Scott MacMillan stated that Deadlines are very important.  It was something that he learned the hard way.  You can see his slides from that presentation, but you cannot see what he discusses during those slides.  It’s something that I have also been learning about on the ZoRTS Project.  Let me synthesize what has been learned first hand, what Scott was trying to say in his presentation, and a couple things picked up from Boston University.

Deadlines should be small tasks which can be completed regularly.  There is an art to setting deadlines (with deliverables) in that they should not be made too big, nor too small.  For example, here is a little list of things that could be deadlines for a computer game project.

  • Game engine (due 1 year from today)
  • Art (due 1 year from today)
  • Sound (due 1 year from today)
  • Text (due 1 year from today)

These are some of the major components when building a computer game.  You have to produce the engine that runs the game.  Someone has to produce the visual and the auditory art and someone has to write text (could be in the game, could be website material).  What is wrong with this list of deadlines?  They have no specificity to them, and no deliverables.  Which means it will be harder to determine if progress is being made within the project (no feedback).

Instead lets try goals which are tied directly to a deliverable and have much shorter durations.  The actual times, deliverables and goals are going to be based on your project, theses are just used as an example, they are not specific suggestions.

  • Game Engine Prototype, with 1 unit, 1 building, 1 vehicle (due in 1 month).
  • Art for each of those basic entities (due in 1 month)
  • Intro music (due in 1 month), sound effects for each basic unit (due in 2 months).
  • Completion of the Game Design Doc (due in 1 month)
  • Basic website text (due in 2 months)
Chances are that upon reading the first list team members get a sense of dread and unease as it feels like an impossibly large task with a very long time frame is looming over them.  The second list, however, feels much less intimating for those who are trying to complete the tasks.  There is an added bonus here.  The next step is much clearer based on the second list.  What do we do when the first prototype is done?  Revise!  Add more units.  Debug.  Repeat.  
There should be someone on the project who can see the big picture and break it down into reasonable tasks for the rest of the team to complete.  In an Amateur setting this might be the whole team discussing the project together during a planning session.  Or it could be one person, a creative lead/project manager.  They should be applying the second list to drive the project.  If they were so inclined (or a business major) they might create a Gantt Chart or a timeline.