Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Mechanics of GAMEbooks (input - test of performance - feedback)

Before we start talking about Gamebook Mechanics, we should first recognize the very basic elements of any game. In theory, a video game (or any other game) consists of two major events: input and feedback. In simple words, the player takes any action such as tilt the joystick, hit a button or move the pawn in a board game, etc and we have an input. For every input, there should be positive or negative feedback such as moving the character on the screen, hearing a sound or something else that provides the player with a clue if he or she is doing well or not.

Here is the basic structure of any game: INPUT - PERFORMANCE TEST (test of the input) - FEEDBACK

In my previous blogpost, I already mentioned that one of the most disturbing articles I've seen so far is the one named narrative is not a game mechanic by Raph Koster and based on his theory many people consider that games and story don't mix coming to the wrong conclusion that it is impossible to write a book which is also a good game.

Just take another look at the basic game elements! Narrative is a form of feedback, isn't it? I think that, not only narrative IS a game mechanic, it actually is the best form of feedback. Raph Koster argues that "games can and do exist without narrative". He is absolutely right, they do, but... Remember the old arcade games where the gameplay was always the same except the opponents speed increased in every consecutive level? Sure, that did make the game more challenging, but how much closer to the final goal did it make you feel and how much feeling of accomplishment did that design approach provide to the players? "Kill as many enemies as possible and move on to the next level" was the motto of all games back then and there was no ultimate goal for us to achieve. My personal opinion is that having some storyline and narrative such as "You just left the Old Village on your way to the Ancient Forest. You can see the mountains standing proud out there beyond the tall trees and you are now a step closer to finding and killing the Dark Wizard, who has been terrorizing your people for centuries... You won the battle against the Dark Wizard and you are successful in your mission to free your people from evil! Everybody in the Old Village will live happily ever after"? Sure, a good narrative limits the replayability of the game as nobody wants to read the same paragraphs multiple times, but how many times do you want to replay the same scenario in the countless levels of a jump and run or a shooting game that doesn't have any narrative? We, the human beings, like diversity and we love having a final goal to reach, and the answer to those challenges in the art of making games lies in providing the player with an interesting storyline that includes diversified encounters and a clearly defined ultimate goal. Those vitally important needs were hardwired in our brains by mother nature through the evolution process of our species (you can read more about my views on that subject in my earlier post about psychology of games).

If I have to summarize, I'd say that for the purpose of reaching the final goal of the adventure, the actual form of the feedback in games doesn't matter all that much as long as the player is given a clear idea if his performance is satisfactory or not. The feedback could be in the form of a sound, movement of an object on the screen or simple description in the form of text narrative. That being said, the real difference in mechanics between gamebooks and all other games is found mainly in the input methods, so next I'd like to compare for you how overcoming an obstacle in video games drastically differs from overcoming the same obstacle in the genre of gamebook adventures and to do so, I am going to use as an example the all-time-favorite Super Mario game and more specifically, how to test the player's performance when jumping over a deep chasm.




Jumping over a chasm in Video Games

Here is the way artificial intelligence would test the gamer performance by checking his speed and coordination:

1. IF the jump button is hit too soon THEN Super Mario will fall into the chasm;

2. IF the jump button was hit too late (after Super Mario walked off the edge) THEN he is going to fall into the chasm;

3. Ideally, IF the jump button is hit at the correct time (between too soon and too late) THEN Super Mario will make it safely to the other side.

Leaping a chasm in a Gamebook Adventure

Unfortunately, we don't have the luxury of testing coordination and speed of the player in this genre. The only input method available to the author is the logic of the reader. Since it would be dumb to ask the gamer if and when he would like to jump, to make gamebook adventures dependent on the input, at this point, the designer must test the stats of the protagonist. The same stats that would have been built up earlier in the adventure through meaningful choices based on strong logic.

An example of such test looks like: If your strength stat is greater than 10, you successfully make the jump. Otherwise you fall down to your death.

A more complicated example would be: Add the number of your Stamina stat to your Strength skill. If the number is higher than 15, you make it to the other end and the adventure continues. If you fall short, your protagonist dies here.

It is also very common to integrate some randomness: Roll 2 dice and add your strength skill to the result. If the number is equal or greater than 20 then you succeed and your adventure continues. If the number is lower than 20, you fall down in the chasm and die.

Please note that skillchecks, dice rolls, flipping pages and so on, are not game mechanics. All of the above examples would be completely meaningless if the author failed to provide proper ways of increasing the protagonist stats earlier in the adventure. This is where the game part of a gamebook happens. For an example, there could have been an option to purchase a headband of strength earlier in the adventure or there could have been a paragraph where the reader had to choose between eating a good meal or picking up a fight at the tavern and the outcome turns out to be increased strength stat from eating the meal or loss of strength points due to the injuries suffered.


See, the input in Gamebooks happens in the form of choices and decisions. It is up to the author to make sure those choices and decisions are meaningful and that they are based on strong logic rather than random dice rolls and player's blind guessing due to lack of relevant information.

I believe that there are two forms of narrative feedback in gamebook adventures: instant and delayed. In the examples above, leaping over the chasm is a form of delayed feedback (the gamer performance up to this point would be considered satisfactory if the protagonist is successful in the jump). A form of instant feedback is the instructions to increase the character strength by 2 points after making the choice to eat the meal instead of picking a fight at the tavern.

As I already pointed out in my previous post, I am not claiming that Gamebooks represent the best of all game genres nor I am claiming that they are any better than video games. All I am saying is that due to the lack of other game mechanics, Gamebook Adventures provide the most diverse storyline and force the player to make the most meaningful choices, because they provoke critical thinking and force the gamer to assess different situations and then select the most rational action for the best possible outcome. I just wish that more of this kind of game mechanics, providing a lot of learning and personal improvement value to the player, would be implemented in video games. Just imagine how much more interesting and exciting an adventure like Diablo 2 would have been, if it was putting the gamer in situations that require certain meaningful and important choices altering the outcome of the story one way or another.

In the next post I will talk about the most important Gamebook Mechanic: Meaningful Choices.

Peter Agapov
Game Designer at AugmentedRealityAdventure.com
President and Chief Executive Officer of American Limo Naperville
Former Road Captain of Marine One at Operation "Welcome You Home"

Friday, May 1, 2020

The great potential of Gamebook Adventures and what is wrong with them

The following article is an excerpt from Peter's Gamebook Theory blog.

Let me make it clear, I am not claiming that Gamebook Adventures is the best genre of them all nor I am saying that it has the greatest potential. I am simply stating that I have found Gamebooks to be teaching the most meaningful lessons of all the games I've played so far. This genre, probably for the lack of other game mechanics, puts the character in many different situations and the player is given a limited amount of possible actions to choose from. Making such a choice must be based on critical thinking, educated guessing and calculating the risk of possible negative or positive consequences for the character on the way to achieving the final goal of the adventure.

Meaningful choices haven't always been part of the Gamebook Adventures. Just take the arcade approach of the first Fighting Fantasy books for example! They are filled with "Which Door", "Cake or Death" and "Shell Game" choices (more on this terminology can be found in the blog about Gamebook Theory by Ashton Saylor) and the only way to get to a good ending in those books was to explore the adventure land, filled with countless instant death chapters and way too many battles (too much of the adventure outcome was left to pure chance), through trial and error until the ultimate path was eventually discovered.
The very first Fighting Fantasy Gamebook: The Warlock of Firetop Mountain
Fighting Fantasy Book 1

Please, don't get me wrong! I have a lot of respect for the pioneers in the genre, the legendary writers Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. They laid down the basic foundation of something that captured the hearts of millions around the globe and has been keeping the love for adventure alive in many generations now. All I am saying is that gamebooks have come a very long way since the dawn of the genre back in 1982 when "The Warlock of Firetop Mountain" was released in Great Britain. I believe that the ultimate example of how much gamebooks have improved since then, is the great work of Stuart Lloyd presented at the Windhammer Competition for Short Gamebook Fiction that is ultimately leading to his mobile platform game Asuria Awakens developed by the computer and marketing geniuses Neil Rennison and Ben Britten at Tin Man Games, for GamebookAdventures.com (not to be confused with my current project Visual Gamebook Adventures).

So, what is wrong with Gamebooks? While I was doing my research on the genre, I ran across quite a few posts that discussed the problems with Gamebooks and how we could fix them. Some were even saying that they can't be fixed and we should leave them in the past. Especially disturbing is the theory that narrative is not a game mechanic and therefore it's impossible to create a book that is also a game. Not only narrative IS a game mechanic, it actually is the best possible form of feedback! (see my next post)

This is what I have to say about it: There is absolutely nothing wrong with Gamebooks and they don't need fixing. The problem lies in the countless amateurs, who want to write a game, without willing to put enough effort into research and without willing to invest time in learning the techniques of a good adventure. That is exactly what happened in Eastern Europe in the late 90s when the whole genre there was brought to a halt, simply because there was too much junk on the market. The situation is the same with the mobile platform games of all genres right now. There is way too many mobile games available and most of them are just plain horrible, so the consumers often get lost in the huge variety and they become disappointed with the questionable quality. The bottom line is that the market suffers, because people quickly lose interest after a few failed attempts to find something worth their time, but instead they discover nothing else besides pure frustration.

There is another aspect of video games which I dislike very much nowadays. The "free to play" games with in-app purchases are the worst thing that has ever happened to the gamer, because winning the game is now based on the amount of money you spend rather than on the skills and qualities you learn and apply. These games are despicable money generating machines that focus on the economic aspect instead of rewarding the gamer for good performance. Put in other words, they could be "free to play", but they are definitely not "free to win" and I am very glad that this system can't be implemented in the genre of Gamebook Adventures.

To summarize this post, I am going to say that narrative and gameplay mix just fine, given that we have the right author to mix them correctly. Just take a good look at the amazing adventures written by Ashton Saylor and Stuart Lloyd and you'll see exactly what I mean. Both of them have excellent blogs on Gamebook Theory that I would strongly encourage you to read if you are planning on writing a short adventure or even a long gamebook. Their thoughts about how to start writing an adventure, how to approach the design process and what NOT to do to the player (such as instant death and many other bad things) are priceless, but for some reason they don't talk in detail about the mechanics of a good Gamebook Adventure. That is the exact subject of my future posts as I will be trying to build on the foundation Ashton and Stuart have already laid down for us.

Peter Agapov
Game Designer at AugmentedRealityAdventure.com
President and Chief Executive Officer of American Limo Naperville
Former Road Captain of Marine One at Operation "Welcome You Home"

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Augmented Reality Gamebook Adventures

The phrase "Augmented Reality" became very popular when Pokemon Go was released just a few months ago, but I've liked the word "Augmented", long before that game made it famous, because of another use apart from computer gaming. Being an average traditional male specimen and also very proud of it, I like women as well as cars quite a bit, but I enjoy both of them even more when they are shown topless. That explains why I have always liked the use of "augmented" associated with the word "breasts" in cosmetic surgery terminology. Don't blame me for being honest here! Have you not noticed that almost all women characters in computer games have undergone some excessive breast enlargement procedures? Lara Croft in Tomb Rider is the perfect, but definitely not the only example here. There is a good reason for that, but I will discuss it in another post later on.
Lara Croft in Tomb Rider is a great example of the average gamer preferences.
Actually, augmenting the world didn't start with the first breast implants back in 1962 either. It predates this miracle of the modern medicine by thousands of years. It has been documented that about two millenniums ago, every fall season, the ancient Celts celebrated the Samhian Festival. They believed that the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred and the ghosts of all recently deceased returned to earth. To ward off those roaming spirits, the Celts would make frightful lanterns for their homes and put on dead-like masks and disguises. It is widely believed that these are the very origins of our modern Halloween parties when we decorate our surroundings to look like a graveyard or some other scary scene of evil descent. This is exactly what Augmented Reality is all about: converting the real world into something else by using decorations or electronic devices.
Halloween is the perfect example of Augmented Reality
Come to think about it, Pokemon Go is not at all what it pretends to be. It fits the description of a location based game much better than Augmented Reality (for more info on this subject, see this article by Sunny Dhillon), but even if it was AR, it would still not be the first game of this kind. My first Augmented Reality gaming experience happened back in 2005 while I was visiting "the waterpark capital of the world": Wisconsin Dells. I remember walking through the main entrance of Wizard Quest and instantly leaving the 21 century. All of a sudden, I found myself in the middle of a fantasy world that was beyond my belief and I fell in love with it from first sight. No, I didn't misspell the name. The Wizard Quest facility in Wisconsin Dells is one of a kind experience and it has nothing to do with the MagiQuest franchise. Although, they both represent the genre of Augmented Reality pretty well and they have very similar game mechanics, MagiQuest uses two-dimensional printed walls to change the environment while Wizard Quest is a much more believable non-computerized three-dimensional experience which makes you feel that you just found yourself right in the middle of the planet Pandora from the movie Avatar.
A real photo taken at the Wizard Quest facility in Wisconsin Dells, USA
But enough about history and theory of Augmented Reality. Lets talk games now! Yes, you can create an adventure for your family and friends fairly easy without having any programming skills. However, you would have to be creative or be willing to spend some money for decorations. The process will consist of three parts: creating the environment (decorating the play area), designing the game (coming up with adventures and tasks for the players) and, of course, playtime.
Medieval Castle Scene Setter

1. Create a parallel world (decorate the play area): You can set the game up in your backyard or at your home. To make it more interesting, challenging and time consuming, I recommend using as much room as you have. First, you would have to decide the setting and the theme of your game. Second, you would have to create (buy cardboard and start drawing) or purchase (find and buy online) enough decorations to be able to augment your game area. You could order scene setters, backdrops, playtents and cardboard cutouts that fit your theme from a party store or on the Internet. Here is just an example of how you can set up one of your rooms as a castle using scene setters: Medieval Scene Setter.
Knight Miniatures Scene
Chances are that you may not be willing to spend that much money, so as an alternative, you could use your kids miniatures to create the game scenes on shelves or tables in different rooms. For an example, one of your rooms could be the fairytale castle, while another one could represent the enchanted forest and a third one can be set up as the evil forces stronghold and so on. Just put your imagination to work! As another alternative to scene setters and miniatures, you could use your computer to print some paper castles, knights, evil creatures, wizards, dragons and everything else you can possibly think of, then cut them out and use glue or tape to create the desired scenes for your game. Whatever you do, make sure that you have enough pieces to design a good storyline and challenges for your game.
The Evil Forces Stronghold
2. Design the game and the game tasks
2.1. Storyline: Your scenario could be as simple as "the dark forces have invaded the earth and you must collect specific artifacts and put an army of creatures together to defeat the evil hordes and free your land of darkness", but the more complex and engaging of a story you have, the more interesting game your friends and family would experience.
2.2. Game Mechanics: Create multiple tasks that have to be completed to win the game. Naturally, to keep the players interested for a long time, you should make them as diverse as possible. Example: Have the kids collect (discover) a fishtail, wing of bat and a mistflower, so they can boil a potion of strength to be able to remove the rock blocking the entrance to the cavern dungeon.
2.2.1. Implement Treasure Hunt Mechanics: find the following items (they would be spread out in multiple scenes and rooms): a magic sword, cloak of invisibility and so on.
2.2.2. Include Collecting Resources: find 100 gold, 5 wood and 10 knights (they should also be spread throughout all rooms and scenes)
2.2.3. Integrate Economics: your players should be able to spend the gold on purchasing magic spells, equipment, healing potions, army units or other things.
2.2.4. If you have multiple players, you could include some boardgame techniques and have them race against each other in completing the tasks.
2.2.5. To make the game even more interesting, design it as a gamebook adventure:
2.2.5.1. collecting information (example: tell the players what clues and items the wicked witch gives them when they find her or when they help her by completing a certain task for her)
2.2.5.2. making difficult meaningful decisions (example: would they spend resources on helping the old farmer defend his home, would they side with the honest king or with his sneaky brother)
2.2.5.3. logic puzzles and riddles (players would gain information or items when solving them)
2.2.5.4. dice battles (the outcome would depend on the items collected and skills gained during the adventure).
You can save a lot of money by getting creative :-)
3. Playtime (Test of Performance): the gameplay process in any game (computer or otherwise) is constructed of three very basic core mechanics: input - test of performance - feedback.
3.1. Gamer input: It is obvious that you can't have your players wave magic wands at the items like in the MagiQuest games, so I would suggest two other ways for you to receive their input:
3.1.1. Have your players find codewords printed on the objects they are looking for (example: name the goldfish 'Jewels', print the name on it and you would know that the player discovered the goldfish if they know its name)
3.1.2. Having cellphone cameras at almost anybody's disposal nowdays, you can have the players take a photo of the object and show it to you to prove that they have located it.
3.1.3. Combine input methods and use codewords for some items and taking photos for other encounters.
3.2. Test of performance: It would be the dungeon master's job (yes, that is you) to figure out if the player has collected the necessary items or hired enough units to complete the quest you assigned them to (example: if they give you the codewords or show you the photos of the fishtail, wing of bat and mistflower, you can tell them that they can find the wicked witch and she will cook the potion of strength for them)
Cardboard Cavern Structure
3.3. Storyteller Feedback: Give them feedback through narrative by explaining what else they need to do in order to succeed (negative feedback) or get them excited that they've done well and they are advancing through the storyline (positive feedback example: Once the player has found the wicked witch and collected all the ingredients, you can tell them that they have enough strength to remove the huge rock blocking the entrance to the cavern dungeon and let them explore that area as well)

Game Design Hint: It is obvious that the core mechanic of this kind of game is the Treasure Hunt, so have as many items scattered throughout the play area as possible and don't make it clear right in the beginning when and how some things would be needed. That way, you will not only provoke the explorer instinct in your players, but you will also have implemented a memory game mechanic, because they'll have to remember where they saw a specific item earlier in the adventure and go back to that location to obtain it when needed. It is a good idea to have most of the play areas (different rooms) "sealed off" in the beginning of the game and have your players complete certain quests in order to "open them" for exploration. That represents the "find a key to unlock this door" mechanic which has proven to be very successful and addicting in all kinds of adventure games.
use Baby Gate to close off certain areas of the adventure until the players gain access to them
The bottom line is that you must decorate well, create a compelling story and set interesting and challenging tasks for your players. To successfully do all of that, you don't need any programming skills, although they could be useful if you already have them, but rather learn how to design a good game by reading some Gamebook Theory here: LloydOfGamebooks.com, AshtonSaylor.com or my own blog at Visual Gamebook Adventures.

Peter Agapov
Game Designer at AugmentedRealityAdventure.com
President and Chief Executive Officer of American Limo Naperville
Former Road Captain of Marine One at Operation "Welcome You Home"

Sunday, March 29, 2020

You want to make games? Just do it! No programming skills required.

Today I'd like to share my theory that to be a game designer is something completely different than being a programmer. Many kids make the mistake of assuming that in order to make games, they have to learn computer languages. I know that because I was one of them. Almost 30 years later, I can tell you that most of the computer code I have written in my life was a waste of time and I regret that I didn't use more of that time to research and learn how to design games rather trying to code them. I thought that if I learned how to write programs, I would most certainly be able to create games. Well, I was completely wrong! Let's face it, even if you become the best programmer in the world, you will most certainly not succeed in developing the next Doom, Diablo, Heroes of Might and Magic or World of Warcraft all by yourself. If you don't believe me, just read the credits of each one of those games! Sure, there are a few programmers listed there, but there are many more people involved in the process, who never wrote a single line of sourcecode: graphic designers, special effects, music composers and so on. The bottom line is that to produce a game of such great scale, you need a big team of people where each one of them is a specialist in a different area.
Now, I am not trying to tell you that you can't create good games all by yourself, nor I am telling you that learning some programming would be a complete waste of time. I am just pointing out that if you want to make a good game, you should first and foremost focus on how to write a compelling storyline and learn the principles and mechanics that make it interesting for the players. As a matter of fact, to create a game, you don't need to have any computer programming skills at all. If that is your case, the game mechanics of the gamebook adventures genre come to the rescue.

Many of you will argue that gamebook mechanics are very limited, if existing at all. Actually, gamebook mechanics do exist and in some ways, they could be better than video game mechanics. I wrote a whole article on the subject and I will re-post it here on lloydofgamebooks.com in the near future. I would go even further and I will add that, even though the advanced visual and sound stimulation of the brain makes for a more enjoyable experience, they are not game mechanics at all. As a matter of fact, I believe that a lot of modern video games implement pretty 3d graphics to make up for the lack of quality gameplay most of them suffer from.

Diablo2: a gamebook adventure with graphics and sound
Let's take a look at one of my all-time favorite games: Diablo. If we dissect the engine this game runs on, we will find some gorgeous graphics combined with good sound effects and not much of game mechanics. If you really think about your input as a gamer, it is pretty much limited to clicking the mouse button over endless hordes of enemies, keeping your fingers over the potion keys to make sure you stay alive and absolutely no test of performance (it doesn't matter where or when you hit the enemy). The damage dealt is based entirely on a formula similar or exactly the same as the calculations in the Dungeons and Dragons tabletop RPG (using random dice rolls). Therefore, if we removed the graphics and the sound effects, the gameplay of the Diablo franchise is the exact same as the gameplay in any gamebook adventure. Why do we enjoy playing that game so much? Well, because it implements other very appealing game mechanics: Exploring a Map, Treasure Hunt and Economics (collecting coins and buying stuff). The best thing about those three is that they are forming the very core of any good gamebook adventure. Actually, think how much better Diablo would have been if it implemented more of the gamebook approach and the player was required to solve some logic puzzles or to make some meaningful choices (I'll talk more about those gamebook mechanics in a later post). What I am trying to say is that Diablo is a poorly designed gamebook adventure with some pretty graphics and pleasant sound effects garnished with horrible narrative.

NSS mobile: the simplest and most successful





My point here is that anybody, who can write on a piece of paper can create a game similar to, if not better (at least from a gameplay and storyline perspective) than most games available on the market today. Sure, the lack of graphics and sound are going to seriously affect the enjoyment of your players, but gamebook adventures are a great place to start for anybody who wants to become a game designer. Once you learn how to write a compelling story and how to correctly implement test of performance that is based on the gamer input rather than random dice rolls, you can take a look at some programing languages. Even then, don't make the mistake to start learning C++ just because it is one of the most powerful computer languages out there. Start simple! A good example that the complexity of the source code is not relevant to the quality of the game is the New Star Soccer series developed by one of my idols: Simon Reed. All of his games were almost exclusively developed in Blitz Basic (a very simple to learn computer language) starting from 2d and moving to much more advanced 3d game engines. After 5 relatively successful versions of New Star Soccer for PC (he admits that he had a very hard time supporting his family with the profits from the series), Simon decided to go mobile and experimented for the fun of it. Due to the lack of computing power of the phone processors, he developed a game that had the simplest engine of them all (there are no 3d graphics and the sound effects are very limited). Surprisingly, New Star Soccer mobile is the game that made him a millionaire. I was not at all surprised when he later released New Star Soccer Story, a game that is ultimately a gamebook adventure. In his own words, during all those years of developing new versions of his game, he perfected not the code for the engine, but the principles that made the game addictive for millions of fans worldwide.


To summarize this post, I'd like to say to you: Stop wasting time on learning programming languages, start writing gamebook adventures and read about gamebook mechanics! You can find a lot of useful information on Gamebook Theory here at LloydOfGamebooks.com, AshtonSaylor.com and my own blog at Visual Gamebook Adventures.

In my next post, I am going to talk about Augmented Reality and how you can make a game like that for your friends or kids by using just your imagination and no computer at all. Actually, augmented reality didn't start with Pokemon. It has been around for more years than most of you can even guess, but more on that subject in my next article here on lloydofgamebooks.com

Peter Agapov
Game Designer at AugmentedRealityAdventure.com
President and Chief Executive Officer of American Limo Naperville
Former Road Captain of Marine One at Operation "Welcome You Home"