Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Essay: I Always Wanted to Be A Game Designer

Every Wednesday, I have an essay on any topic that catches my fancy!

For me, game design was pretty much like writing: most of us do it but few call attention to it. I remember playing my first few games of Monopoly and my brother made a house rule that all money lost (whether from Income Tax or some card) would be placed in the Free Parking slot--to make that particular area more interesting. It's a small deviation from the rules yet for me, this is already game design. The moment you start tinkering with rules and making changes to the game, you're a game designer.

As much fun as board games were at the time--or those that I was familiar with--my first love came in the form of video games. I owned a Famicom (the Japanese equivalent of the NES) and I remember spending many fond hours playing with it. For me, the Famicom was an interesting device because you could play various games with it, as opposed to something like the Game and Watch, or even the arcade machines. However, the problem with video games is that you can't easily tinker with the rules. One needs to be a programmer in order to modify the game and for a brief period of time, I wanted to learn programming so that I would design the next big video game. I bought books on computer coding and I was even thought BASIC--but no game arose from it.

Nonetheless, at school, I still created games, usually on graph paper and involved mazes and high adventure. I was a fan of Street Fighter II at the time and I even made an ad-hoc game where each character had a different move that dealt a different amount of damage. The only ones who played with was my seatmate but creating those games felt wonderful for a ten-year old. I even remember spending one summer creating my own board game using stickers from Battle of the Planets. It was ridiculously simple and involved rolling dice and the like. My conceit was that the stickers on the board concealed an event underneath it (unfortunately, I wasn't yet antiquated with the use of cards in board games) so that one didn't necessarily know what one got into when you landed there.

In terms of game design, there are two games that really interests me. The first are tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons. The thing with such games is that the Game Master usually has their own set of house rules. In D&D, this is more pronounced, especially with seemingly mundane things like the ultimate critical hit (a special effect that happens when you roll a 20) or critical fumbles (when you roll a 1). The problem however with such RPGs is that game design is usually in the hands of the GM alone and leaves the players out. Sure, the players might have suggestions but the GM is not obligated to take into account their suggestion. But I've experienced collaborations on determining the setting, what the flavor will be and sometimes even rules mechanics of the world. It's a very different experience from what I was familiar with compared to video games where pretty much what you see is what you get. (Of course I might add that many PC games these days have changed--there are all sorts of mods and skins and maps and hacks that enable one to change the game or tell an entirely different story.)

The other game that encourages game design I think are card games. What I had in mind was Magic: The Gathering but it's not limited to just that. I mean the regular deck of cards is proof of game design: who came up with ideas for Blackjack and the variants of Poker? Even the Philippines has its own "card game" with Tong Eights (too complicated to describe here). Whoever proposed Strip Poker or losers guzzling down a mug of beer whenever one lost is a game designer--it's modifying the rules of the game! But going back to Magic: The Gathering, aside from coming up with variants on the game (especially with tournaments like Sealed Deck or Booster Drafts), I do think that every veteran player has at one point in time or another imagined designing a card for the game. It didn't have to be a revolutionary idea or a spanking new ability, it could be something as lowly as a 2/2 creature for one mana. It's just that some people actually went on and published their designs for the game, others merely spoofed it (as can be seen in some websites, blogs, and gaming magazines), while there's a segment that's probably frustrated game designers and simply decide to move on and remain as players.

I don't profess to be a professional game designer in the sense that I've published or sold any game design. But that doesn't mean the game designer in me has died. In D&D for example, I'm always imagining what would be a cool ability, a nifty feat, a unique monster, or an uncommon spell. In board games, there's always the house rule that'll add spice to the game. And perhaps the best thing about all of this is unlike a few decades ago, people now have a venue for their game design ideas. I mean part of Magic: The Gathering's success was dependent on the Internet (especially with all that errata) but one of the first spoof Magic cards came from Photoshopped images of existing cards and posting them on the web.

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