Friday, April 6, 2012

Interview for HOP- Porky

I wrote a series of articles about designing better games for House of Paincakes over the past 2 months or so. While I was working on the process and developing material for the series, I conducted a good number of interviews with various people across the internet, as well as some real life folks.

I've saved this interview for last. It was the most fun, the most challenging, and the most though provoking. I don't really consider myself much of an intellectual, so plunging these depths caused me to do a lot of intense thinking, spreading out past my normal limits, and enjoying the conversation with a brilliant mind. I find Porky to be an artist of the highest caliber; using words and stretching boundaries for all who listen.

When you look at a game, is art a factor in buying it? If so, how much of a deciding element is the art?

I'm definitely drawn to new things by the art, but I'm more interested in heavily stylised pieces than big pictorial scenes. I want texture and mood much more, even without action and even in shades of grey, and maybe better like that, for how soft black and white can be and how much contrast it can have. There doesn't need to be much art either because the people I hang out with are very happy to imagine and improvise, do things their own way - there should be just enough to prompt and trigger, set off trains of thought, but then cleverly chosen words can do that too.

I'm a very big fan of the art produced by the husband-and-wife team Hereticwerks . They do great profiles for their monsters and paper minis, but take a look at the moody, suggestive material for their Riskail setting for example,at Barely any weapons, no action in the usual sense, but it's brooding and the mind is already exploring out, making jumps. Art can really build a world - look at the etched style of ArmChairGeneral's When the Navy Walked, which seems to grow out of the setting. His art also serves a functional purpose because there are no war machines in the range yet, so the images help with finding or building miniatures.

I can't remember ever choosing a system or supplement for the art only, but the aesthetics are a major factor; if the overall feel is right, and there's massive scope, you've got me.

I know you are active in encouraging new designs and designers through your blog. Many of the projects I see currently are "mechanics oriented" (ie rules) and art has yet to enter their scopes. How does the gaming/hobby community promote new and innovative art for gaming?

I'd say art has to be much more central to new projects. I don't mean there needs to be a big art budget, or any budget at all, or even any art in the finished product, because there doesn't. I mean game designers ought to recognise that by designing a game they're evoking a world or an interpretation of one, and that they can liberate themselves from the limits of words and mechanics only in doing that.

They should really be aiming to get as much of their mental, emotional and spiritual vision out as possible, whether down on paper in a sketch, or in movement of some kind. Build a mini maybe for the tactile aspect, or make up a scrapbook; work out a wardance or play out a critical event. At the very least think about the ideal arrangement of the words, so that layout goes hand in hand with content. I'm working on a couple of semi-secret projects at the moment, and they won't have any art at all in the traditional sense, but I'm hoping when people are using them, or thinking about them, they get the impression there is art in there, and that they're feeling it's a piece of gaming art in itself, composed, suggestive and even dynamic. Nothing's hard to do if we set our minds to it and practise.

I haven't answered the promotion point in that, but one way to get more gaming projects using and thinking in terms of aesthetics is by different talents grouping together. The casual Hydra cooperative is doing this for old school roleplaying, at least initially, and they've got access to writers, playtesters and editors, but also artists and potentially sculptors too. That pooling of skills and a process of constant creative feedback and challenge is one smart way forward.

How open do you believe the gaming/hobby community is to new art concepts? The majority of art I see appears to be based on longstanding ideas with deep resonance. Examples include orks, dragons and spaceships. How does a designer introduce a new premise and make it "take hold"?

Here again I'd point to a team like Hereticwerks. They have some very imaginative approaches, even groundbreaking ideas, but you can almost feel the resistance from the community. Even though the quality is excellent - conceptually and technically - people seem unable to see what they're doing because it's not exactly the things you mentioned - orks, dragons and spaceships. I like those things too, but man they make me hungry for fresh things to go with them. Really craving fresh things. We're complex creatures with an inner life we barely understand. There's much more to come, or rediscover inside ourselves, because it's in us, not in old pages or clips.

The major tropes weren't always there. Tolkien was just a man with weird ideas once. People like Wells and Verne had to make their space. The great visions like Lovecraft's and Stapledon's survived. To some extent you're playing the long game with the really good stuff. It takes time for the magic to be widely recognised.

How do Hereticwerks do it? They go wide and open. They collaborate with other interested individuals and groups, look into new spaces and communities, support adaptations of their work and develop crossovers, basically put their material out there for people to see and use. They know that if you try it you'll probably like it. They believe enough to let go and give, and that comes back.

Be passionate and let the thing live, and it might live.

I appreciate your replies very much. They brought out some interesting concepts I'd not yet considered. I do expect to do some editing to all of my interviewed persons' replies to make the article manageable. I hope you don't mind.

I'd like to ask a few questions regarding mechanics of games, if you are up for it. Do you still have the bookmark for the D1 discussion?  I've lost it, and I found that entire conversation, process and concept more than fascinating. I'm still not sure I entirely followed all of it, but it was compelling and illuminating all the same.

I have fond memories of that. It went down into the weave of the fabric, and the discussion probably still informs the way I think on some level.

Following that conversation and many of its derivative thoughts, the idea of CHANCE seems paramount to games. In the course of my daily life, I rarely encounter much that seems purely driven by chance- most things seem at least partially under my control. Why do you think we're drawn to using random elements (other than the drive to roll fun dice)?

I'm not sure we're drawn to the random elements so much as we need them, to make the thing work. The random element is a catch-all feature that covers all of the multiple factors that can't easily be accounted for otherwise - the side of bed the person got out of that morning, distracting glints off the other guy's buffed up equipment, subtle variations in wind speed, or the shadow of a bird, an order not quite heard clearly, a moment of doubt. The phenomenon Freud called parapraxis is one great example of this.

It goes way beyond 'ooh err missus', in that there are many primal things that might be repressed, especially in a highly trained individual. Think of the complex minds and backstories of the characters in our games, and the challenge of the situations they're thrown into. Part of the point is that parapraxes slip out despite social conditioning and rigorous regimens.

At any rate, all of the things in that list of factors are things like-minded people could sit down and discuss the potential for, and the effects of, in the name of realism maybe, or narrative, and maybe they could even agree on them. I believe they can, and I've played games like that. I played one a couple of weeks back with a new gamer, and it made the game far more accessible than it otherwise would have been. Most people have probably played like this at some point, in that games of make-believe as very young children are often this kind, with the players just working things out as they go along, based on how they understand the game world should work. Generally, if the players can't agree, or don't have time to go through all the factors and permutations, the random element can do the job, and very quickly. Roll a die and there you go. By design, and the consent of players, the need to consider beyond a certain level is waived.

It can be argued of course that the random adds suspense and surprises, and that means excitement, in the sense that we give up control, give up the opportunity to argue our case rationally and persuade the other person, or accept persuasion in turn. When you roll a die, control is gone and often, to some extent, the wrong thing could happen. Why are rollercoasters so popular?

In your opinion, is this scenario a real life example of the D1? Where fate intervenes? Or is this a truly random happening?

These are getting deeper.

There's nothing random about parapraxes as I understand it. In fact, I'd hazard a guess - a huge guess - that there's little or nothing in the universe, in our terms, that's truly random. It may be that what we see as random is just us not looking deeply enough, or us saying: 'Fine, that'll do - that's as random as I need.' The post at Jeff's blog you linked to and specifically the videos he mentions begin to open the door to this.

When we roll a die a vast number of factors are involved, many of which could be measured both in themselves and in their effect. We know that with practice a die can be rolled to encourage a particular result, and this limitation of 'random' is thought of as cheating. In athletics wind speed and direction is important, and football matches have end changes to offer a more level playing field. What if a player only played on tables in a particular breeze, or with a slightly slanted surface, or maybe only on hot days when players had sweatier hands, but kept his or hers very dry, or at particular tides for a given force of gravity from the moon with a larger or smaller die? All of these factors are measurable in themselves and conceiveably in their effect. Think how many more there could be at various magnifications.

Have a quick read of this anecdote.

To summarise, in Minsky's words: "If you wire it randomly, it will still have preconceptions of how to play. But you just won't know what those preconceptions are."

Do you think what "sort" of randomizer makes a difference in feel? Does a D6 change the way a game "feels" over a D20? Why do you think this?

For me it does. I have a post on the D6 which covers a bit of my thinking.

Put simply, associations are made with particular actions, tactile objects and symbols, and not only in gaming of course. Some of these associations may be personal and private, but others are more universal and public. A designer may be saying something about his or her own expectations when a particular randomiser is chosen, but the choice could also be sending a signal about how the game should be played, or reinforcing the image of the game, or raising the bottom line. Maybe a studio uses one method to encourage a larger player base, or to seem innovative, or more adult, or to force players to spend more.

Choice of randomiser, and whether there even is one, is a core choice in game design, for the potential that flows from it.

Given your professed affinity for a D6, what are your thoughts on precision dice and the math behind GameScience's creations?  Further discussion on this may be found here:

I'd clarify that while I do like the D6 in general, it won't always be the best tool for a specific task. The suggestion seems to be that the D6 could be badly made, and that's reasonable, just because it is so ubiquitous and casual gamers might not mind a less balanced one, or even think about it, but there are degrees of precision in D6s too, and we could make the assumption that it would be a balanced one being used.

The variation in precision that's potentially out there is something I think every gamer should be aware of, to be able to make an informed decision. That argument about preferring less balanced dice for their skewed frequencies is a reasonable one if the players know that's what they have. I'm very glad there's a precision option in a producer like GameScience, because we need as full a spectrum of options as possible, and access to a high level of rigour too, to keep the spectrum as a whole honest, and not only in gaming of course.

There's a certain argument that a D2 is not any "less random" than a D20. Perhaps this is a statistics question, but, what are your thoughts on that idea?

Again, I think this comes down to the definition of random. If we're talking precision and balance, then assuming the differing shapes of the two dice don't add anything to the equation - and they probably do - we are able to say the D2 and D20 can be equally precise or balanced, meaning equally able to provide an even spread of frequencies. But of course, the likelihood of any given result on a D2 is still higher than any given result on a D20.

I think we're getting to things most people don't consider. It's still fun.

Fun it is - it's a kind of wonderland.

In one assertion, you seem to imply there is very little that is random- anywhere. But in another, you propose that precision matters at least in theory, and those of us that game should have the option of as random a chance as possible. How do you reconcile those two concepts?

I was careful not to use the word 'random' in that last question for just this reason, and preferred to stick with the concepts of 'precision' or 'balance'. What I think gamers should be aware of differences in the precision or balance of the physical product, meaning the potential for skewed frequencies because of the construction of the die itself. How much a perfectly even spread of frequencies - assuming this is even possible - has in common with the truly random - assuming it exists - who knows? In the first question in the last email I also used the qualifier 'in our terms' because our language and our minds very likely limit our understanding at this point in time.

Language, I'm afraid, is a topic for another time. 

I have to counter here with fractals and specifically Mandelbrot sets. While these are certainly well defined and have specific boundaries, what happens inside those boundaries is limitless, and completely unpredictable. Would we call these occurrences random? These phenomenon are definitely found in the physical world. Could we construct mechanisms to replicate these sets for random results?

As far as I can see the Mandelbrot set isn't random, but predictable in that each step is a natural progression based on the last. I could be missing something of course, and it seems likely I am. Also, it may be that the magnification suggests limitless possibilities, but that lack of a limit seems to me to be an illusion, related not to physical structures directly, but only the nature of numbers, a little like looking into the distance in a mirrored lift; there isn't an endless space running on, just the impression of it. That said, as conceptual spaces at the very least, they are still interesting.

As for creating them with random results - if we ignore that earlier questioning of the definition of random for the moment - it may be that what we think of as a game actually does that, in that any given game played provides a set of values, some produced by players as a result of complex mental processing - complex enough we might also dare to class it with what we usually think of as random - and others by nominally random factors, like dice. If so, they could be made more 'limitless' by, say, allowing endless reinforcement in a wargame, and even having generations grow up schooled in the playing; the natural limit then would be, as with life presumably, but not necessarily, the end of the universe. It would also arguably be based more on physical structures.

Interesting thought experiment for sure. I wish I could do it justice. Like the D1, this is one for a back and forth between a large group, enough people that it's kept on the straight and narrow. The D1 was very collaborative.

You spoke earlier of games that have the full spectrum - art, mechanics and setting as ones that strike your fancy. Can you give some examples of games that "have it all" in your view?

I might do a little hurt to big egos in design studios and maybe - just maybe - board rooms if answer truthfully here, but I should answer truthfully of course, and I will preface it by saying I've thought deeply on and off for a few hours now about this. The fact is no game system I've ever played, or even seen, or heard of for that matter, has it all, or even comes close to having it all. In particular areas, maybe many, a game might be astounding, even revolutionary, and we know the names of those games. There are also games I'm fond of, and it's clear that emotional connections, a long history and chance events can and do blur the vision. But even with that, there's still nothing I'd claim is or was what I could call perfect, even taking perfection as relative, meaning the very best that could be done at the time.

The good news is that this is clearly highly subjective, based on my knowledge and nature, in that I may not be part of the audience for any given game, but the better news could be that if my opinion on this is a common one, the challenge remains - it's still there to be done, maybe by you, maybe by me, maybe by one or even all of the people who might eventually read this. Even the very largest design studios can put out rough material - as we hear so often - and there's a strong argument to be made that despite their resources, and maybe simply because of them, they might be able to do the thing far less well than a smaller group of passionate visionaries.

Building on that, and at the foundation of it, there is one big question that needs to be answered before we can talk objectively about whether or not any game has it all - what is a game?


  1. Thanks for the kind words - and they're very kind words - how true it is that I'm "an artist of the highest caliber" I don't know, but feel free to say it as often as you like..! It was just a lot of fun to have the back and forth, and it pushed me hard as well, and you throwing the fractals in really opened it up. It was also a while back now so this is a useful reminder of the themes; I feel like mining specific ideas and running with them in some way. We'll see what comes of that.

    Because of the people involved, I'm thinking of this almost as part of an ongoing multilogue through the D1, the ID series itself and these full interviews. If so, the question I have to everyone is this: what's next..?

    Also, I really think you should make an index page for the project - I count 11 interviews altogether and you could link to the ID series as well, the finished work. All the voices and ideas could be very useful to people wanting to create something new. I've been massively inspired by it all.

  2. A very fine interview, which raises many interesting questions. I loved the detailed approach which both of you followed. What stimulated me about this discussion is that there's so many avenues for exploration - I was thinking at a tangent by the fourth paragraph! On parapraxis and randomness, there's so many places where that discussion leads - for me, there's a clear cross-over with Clausewitz's "friction". Thinking about the different perspectives of an event (whether it's happening to you, or whether your view is detached, objective and forensic) is a really fascinating journey. Thanks again - I'm now going off to read the other ten interviews over the weekend!

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  4. Good interview. Lot's to think about. I followed the link over here after reading ID on HOP.
    I have to disagree with Porky's statement "Tolkien was just a man with weird ideas once,". Tolkien mined elements of Norse mythology, which there was little information on, and created a rich world with history, geography and language. People were inspired to create their own stories incorporating elements of his, giving rise to many of the classic fantasy tropes.It'd be a nice change if someone put in the same kind of work and created a fantasy world based on some other mythology.

  5. I've seen a few of those settings. One was good and one not so much, so I think a lot has to do with the author more than anything else.