Thursday, March 11, 2021

Testing input and performance: Attention, Memory, Knowledge and Logic

Some time ago, I published a post on mechanics of games (input - test of performance - feedback), which proved that the only valid form of player input, in the genre of Gamebook Adventures, happens in the form of choices and decisions. Later on, I shared with you my ideas about Meaningful Choices and the Logical Conclusion Choice Theory. At that point of my research project, I had nothing else to say about mechanics of gamebooks, but at the same time, I felt as if something very important was still missing.

Recently, it downed on me that I could zoom in further, just like the scientists did when they discovered the smaller particles of the atom. The result of this experiment was absolutely astonishing. The conclusion it led me to, and the information it uncovered for me, were unexpected to such extent that I was forced to entirely change my core beliefs of the whole gamebook genre.

Before I share with you exactly what I meant in the statement above, I'd like to tell you that dissecting the structure of the Meaningful Choice, helped me realize that, if applied properly, it gives the author many necessary tools to test the following four reader skills: attention, memory, knowledge and logic.

Attention Challenges: in a world of Short Attention Span, in an age of growing Attention Deficit Disorder and also looking into a future of extremely impatient people, this is a very good choice of skill to undergo testing in any game. After all, even the great Stuart Lloyd openly admitted that he is used to "quick scan the text for the outcome and for the next choice".

Mechanics: the author could create a choice, which is related to information presented earlier in the book or earlier in the same paragraph.

Example: from "Mars 2112" by Ashton Saylor, where Commander Blint warns the protagonist about the terrorists: "They refuse to negotiate. They already killed Bernie when he went in unarmed". Shortly after the above information, the reader is faced with the choice to (1) go in and negotiate with the terrorists or (2) examine the area and come up with another plan. The danger in (1) seems obvious, but it is so, only if the reader actually paid attention to the information that the terrorists are refusing to negotiate and they already killed the previous negotiator.
do you prefer to (1) negotiate with the artificial terrorists or (2) examine the area?

Short-Term Memory: checking if the reader has memorized important information, mentioned earlier in the book, creates a challenge, which is closely associated with the Attention Skill test. After all, the information must be noticed first, before it could be memorized. In times when people are literally bombarded with information and given the fact that our brains can't store it all, so they are forced to discard most of it, this kind of choices are a great way to test the player's performance.

Mechanics: the author designs a choice, the answer to which requires taking in consideration important information, presented in the text, sometime earlier in the book.

Example: imagine that the protagonist, while having a meal one night at the local tavern, overhears a legend being told about the only weak spot in the body of a fire dragon. The only way to kill the creature is to strike it in the head, right between the eyes. This all happens in the beginning of the gamebook. However, when facing the dragon in the final battle of the adventure, the author gives a choice between striking the fearsome creature (1) in the heart, (2) in the back of the scull or (3) between the eyes.
you strike the dragon (1) in the heart, (2) in the back of the skull or (3) between the eyes?

General Knowledge: testing the reader's general knowledge and competence on the subject of the gamebook. This one is similar to the short-term memory challenge explained above with the important difference that the information needed to succeed is not present in the book, but is expected to be known to the reader from another source, outside of the gamebook he is currently reading.

Mechanics: it requires of the player to make a decision based on his general knowledge. This type of challenge is similar to the multiple-choice tests in school.

Example: from "Dark Side of the Earth" by Michael Mindcrime, where the protagonist is trying to kill a sleeping Vampire Lord, by stabbing him in the heart. The test given by the author is about the protagonist's weapon of choice for this specific task: (1) golden arrow, (2) iron sword or (3) wooden stake. Do you know the right answer? It is expected that the reader would be able to make the correct decision based on the horror movies he has seen, scary old legends he's been told or even simple Halloween mythology he's been exposed to.
stab the Vampire Queen in the heart using (1) golden arrow, (2) iron sword or (3) wooden stake?

Logical Thinking: a performance test which requires critical thinking and logic. In this kind of choice, any of the aforementioned methods - attention, memory or knowledge - could become a logic challenge, provided that "fog of war" was applied accurately to make some of the circumstances, presented to the reader, less obvious. This kind of test requires of the player to unveil the actual question through logic, before being able to properly answer it. This challenge comes in the form of Logical Conclusion Choice, Logic Riddle, Tactical Choice and others. I have a soft spot for this kind of challenges in gamebooks, because in recent times, when emotional decision making TRUMPs rational thinking and logic, it is of extreme importance to force the reader to use vitally important skills such as risk management, damage control, resource management, educated guessing and critical thinking.

Mechanics: the author must take a simple test of attention, memory or knowledge choice, replace words and circumstances with hints, riddles and clues, scattered throughout the book.

Example 1 - Logical Conclusion Choice: our protagonist, an artifact hunter just like Indiana Jones, has already obtained a strangely shaped object, which fits very well in a mummy sarcophagus that is located by the east wall of a hidden pyramid room. The script on the wall behind it reads "the key, when put in place, must be illuminated by sunlight". However, there is only one way for outside light to get into the confined space: through a small hole, positioned right in the middle of the ceiling. What time of day does the protagonist have to be there for the sarcophagus to open up: (1) morning, (2) early afternoon or (3) evening? I got you thinking here, didn't I?! Hint: take in consideration the position of the sun throughout the day! This question distills down to: what time of day does the sun shine from the west (the side of sunshine in a room reverses angles). I sure hope that I don't have to explain any further.

Example 2 - Logic Riddle Choice: three people met at a corner of a street. They all are dressed like cops, so they don't know who the thief is. The real police officers will always tell the truth and the thief will tell the truth too, to make himself appear like a good cop. Given that Alex says: "Calvin is not the thief."; Bruce adds: "One of you both is the thief"; and Calvin states: "I am not the thief". Which one of the three would you accuse of the crime?

Example 3 - Tactical Choice: the protagonist is a superhero, who is in pursuit of the villain. The choice given to the reader is between (1) shooting the evil antagonist from a distance or to (2) chase him down on foot. There is no ultimately better decision. The outcome depends on a choice the reader had to make earlier in the gamebook. It could have been a choice between visiting the shooting range or spending more time jogging.

Before I finish talking about categories of choices in the genre of gamebooks (attention, memory, knowledge and logic), I would like to point out that I presented them to you in the order of difficulty, building it up, starting from an easy and simple attention challenge, and then ending with the more complicated and sophisticated logic challenges. Use all of them at your own discretion, but keep in mind that the difficulty of the adventure must grow with the progress of the story, so create easy challenges in the beginning and keep the tougher ones for the end.

Every gamebook reader wants to be a superhero. Make them feel like one!

In conclusion, I have to be honest and admit that I have been wrong about gamebooks, which implement flawed choices. Even a bunch of consecutive random "which door" choices, the ones that have no value on their own, could potentially create an enjoyable game experience, which measures the reader performance through testing his attention skill and short-term memory. That happens by making him to keep track of the path he's walked and forcing him to create a map of the adventure either on paper or in his mind, so he can avoid all the dangers and dead ends in the next attempt to achieve success. Don't get me wrong! I still urge the authors to avoid such mechanics at all cost and to use as many logic test choices in their games as possible, but the conclusion of this blogpost is that flawed adventures still test reader's performance. This came to me as a tremendous surprise.

Here is a final word of wisdom: Force your readers to use their brains, not their pens!

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

Friday, September 25, 2020

"Fog of War" and Logical Conclusion Choice

Note: "Fog of War" is terminology established by Ashton Saylor in his blog on Gamebook Theory. Unfortunately, he never came up with a specific step by step formula on how to apply the fog of war in a gamebook, so I decided to try analyzing the whole process and arrived at the theory of the Logical Conclusion Choice. While this is, by my own account, the greatest of my achievements in the game design theory, please look at it as a suggestive process instead of an exact science.

Keep in mind that not all the steps listed below are my own invention. On the contrary, most of them have been discussed in depth by other authors and designers, but nobody (as far as I know) has presented them in a form that is clearly defined and easy to apply when writing a gamebook adventure.

I believe that the father of Logical Conclusion Choice is Michael Mindcrime (a nickname of Dimitar Slaveikov). According to his own words, he was disappointed by the arcade approach of blind decisions and random choices in the well established series "Fighting Fantasy" and "Choose Your Own Adventure" and started writing gamebooks back in the 1990s, implementing some innovative ideas, where the choices were based on strong logic and therefore positive outcome of the adventure was a direct result and in direct proportion to the reader's performance quality. He quickly became the best selling author in the genre of gamebooks in Bulgaria and some of his work reached the top of bestseller book charts in the country.

To better illustrate the process below, let me once again use the example of a Logical Conclusion Choice I presented in my last blogpost (this scenario is courtesy of the Bulgarian gamebook "The Master of Darkness" by George M George - a nickname of George Mindizov). Here it is: The protagonist is crossing a wide open field. There are mountains in the distance to the west, with visible caves carved in them. A dark, almost black, thunderstorm front is approaching fast from the east. The choice is between running for the caves or seeking shelter under a nearby tree.

Lets dissect the above example!

Part 1. Hide the danger by applying the 'fog of war'

1. Danger. Design the danger your protagonist would be facing: being hit by a lightning. At the moment, this choice is between being hit by a lightning or taking shelter in the caves: this is a cake or death (too obvious) choice and no self-respecting author would write it in this very form.

2. Clues and Hints. Take the exact wording out of the text and replace it with clues and hints: don't mention a lightning in the text, but provide clues and hints by listing the conditions, under which the danger may exist or occur: thunderstorm, wide open field, the tree is the only tall object in the vicinity. Note: You don't have to start out from a loss point of view. Instead, write a paragraph with a specific gain in mind. Example: dead body with a bag of gold coins next to it. Hide it by writing that there are vultures circling high in the air, far away in the distance. Now, keep in mind that, this is also a warning of a possible grave danger awaiting there, so the outcome, positive or negative, is still a matter of chance, not the result of an informed decision. To avoid such randomness in your gamebooks, adjust the difficulty of the choice, using the steps listed below.

Part 2. Adjust the difficulty of the choice accordingly

3. Move clues and hints. Move some of the clues and hints to previous paragraphs: if you need to make the choice more difficult, move some of the conditions to a previous paragraph. Example: mention wide open field and the lonely tree in the same paragraph as the choice, but move the information of the approaching thunderstorm to a previous paragraph. This step increases the difficulty of the choice by measuring the attention and the memory of our readers.

4. Inform the Reader. Make the dilemma a little bit easier: inform the reader that the tree can't provide full protection against the forces of nature (this is a wide term that doesn't directly hint towards a lightning) and let him guess and decide what those forces could be and how much damage they could possibly cause. Note that without this step, the player could be tricked into making the wrong choice and that is something an experienced author would never do to his readers.

5. Partially Reveal. Make the choice harder: if we stop at the previous step, the choice could be a little bit too easy (which could be acceptable early in the adventure), so we may want to adjust it to more difficult (especially later in the adventure) by forcing the reader to choose the lesser evil from two bad outcomes. To do so, we could reveal that if he decides to run for the caves, he will suffer the loss of 10 points of health due to exhaustion. Alternatively, we can design paragraphs where the player chooses the greater good from two or more positive outcomes. The dilemma is now similar to a lot of everyday choices we face, where one of the outcomes is well defined and expected, while the other outcome could be better or worse due to unknown or unforeseen factors.

6. Adjust Further. Adjust the difficulty further by mixing and matching more of positive or negative clues in step 4 and step 5 as much as you think is necessary. Why not adding some positive to each negative like this: there could be provisions or gold left under the tree by other travelers, who took shelter under it or rested there, but at the same time, there are probably artifacts hidden in the mountain caves. See what we did back there? "A thunderstorm is approaching fast. There could be provisions or gold left under the tree by other travelers, but it can't provide full protection against nature's forces. However, if you run for the caves, you'd lose 10 points of health due to exhaustion, but you've heard that there are artifacts hidden in the mountain. Do you take shelter under the tree or do you run for the caves?". Now we have a choice between the lesser of two evils and the greater of two goods. How about mixing them in order to make the choice less obvious? The lesser evil provides the greater good and vice-versa. Actually, to make the above example more difficult, I would move the information about the artifacts to an earlier paragraph, where another person tells you a legend that there are artifacts in the mountains and I wouldn't even mention them in the paragraph where the choice is.

Part 3. Provide deserved feedback after the choice was made

7. Explain Yourself to the Reader. Very limited number of authors inform their readers how and why the consequences of each choice are in direct proportion to the performance and logic during gameplay. It wouldn't hurt to tell the player that while he is running for the caves, a lightning hits the tree under which he had a chance to seek shelter. While subtle enough, that information provides necessary feedback to the player that he chose wisely. In the opposite scenario, feel free to openly criticize the reader extensively for choosing to go under the tree. Inform him that he missed very important clues and tell him that he is running the risk of being hit by a lightning. Keep the feedback short when a good choice was made, but explain in detail why the player is being punished for a mistake he made. This is the only way to provide your readers the satisfaction that they are in control (the human creatures looooove to be in control) even when they are being punished and, and at the same time, teach them a lesson they may benefit from sometime in the future. Teach good and valuable lessons in your games! Being the adventure designer, you are the God of their game world. "With great power comes great responsibility". Use it wisely!

8. Punish or Reward Appropriately. Lets be fair, but also realistic: a lightning can't cause partial damage, it is a total annihilation event. Tell the reader to subtract 10 points of life due to exhaustion, if he chose to run for the caves (you promised him that in the previous paragraph), and also reward him with a magic sword, but don't tell him that the tree was hit by a lightning, if he decided to seek shelter under it, and then ask him to reduce his health points by 40 or so! That is simply not realistic. Instead, give the player some provisions, which he apparently found under the tree and then inform him that he made a mistake, so he will be facing the grave danger of being totally fried up. Then apply, what I call, the rule of God's Forgiveness.

9. God Forgives. Most authors agree that instant death in gamebooks should be reduced to a minimum. If the reader gets to a dead end, it must be the result of multiple bad mistakes and unsatisfactory performance (he dies only after he loses all points of health) or it should be a combination of extremely bad choice and unfortunate luck (the later approach is the God's Forgiveness approach). For the purpose of applying this rule, I suggest that the author tells his reader that, even though being hit by a lightning is a very likely outcome, the chance of it is only a 1/3 or 33% and then ask him to roll a die. If the roll is 1 or 2, the protagonist gets annihilated by a lightning in an instant death, but if the roll is greater than 2, God (the designer of this world) forgives the mistake and allows him to move on. I believe that most readers would see this as a very fair mechanic.

10. Add a layer of emotional and moral choices: Add more implications to make the choice more interesting: having two final goals in a gamebook instead of just one would be a great addition to the difficulty and will add another layer of game mechanics: balancing between two goals, which also provides a much greater replayability value. I love it when authors add a romance plot to another well defined ultimate goal. Let just say that the cop is not only asked to do good in the world and get to the mafia boss in town, but is also given a parallel plot of meeting a beautiful woman, whom he is supposed to attract. It should be nearly impossible to achieve both during the first read, but gaining more knowledge about the game world should allow the player to achieve complete success in both plotlines after a couple or three consecutive attempts. More on the subject of Emotional and Moral Choices could be found in the blog of Ashton Saylor here.

Classification of Hints and Clues:

General Knowledge or Storyline Specific. General Knowledge hint is a piece of information, which is assumed to be a well known fact in the real world. Example: lightnings strike during a thunderstorm. Storyline Specific clue is information received in the course of the adventure. Example: the village elder tells you that there are artifacts hidden in the caves up in the mountain.

A game could be a lot of fun and very sexy if well designed
Storyline Specific hints have two subcategories: Storyline Revelation and Immediate Paragraph hint. Storyline Revelation is information received sometime earlier in the adventure, which could be of help to the reader for the choice he is facing in a later paragraph. Example: while at the tavern, you hear a legend about a magic sword, which could be found in the cave to the left (use that information when you get to the mountains). Application: this kind of hint normally has a higher difficulty level and is used to measure the attention and memory of the player. Immediate Paragraph clue is information presented to the reader, directly related to the choice he is facing in the current paragraph. Example: there is an immediate danger of a thunderstorm front approaching very fast from the east. Application: this kind of hint usually has a lower difficulty level and doesn't require the use of memory, it measures only the reader's attention instead.

A very good alternative of Logical Conclusion Choices is the School Test Choice (Statistical Probability Choice), which is created by finding (in your memory or in a textbook) the correct answer to a question, modifying it to fit the gamebook storyline, coming up with the wrong answer(s) and then designing the outcome punishment and reward. Using this approach doesn't even require the application of hints and clues, the author could even openly warn his readers of the positive and negative outcomes. Example: "Our hero must hurry to the rescue of a beautiful princess, who is held captive in a cursed castle to the north. Should he go in the direction moss is growing on trees or the opposite way? Is moss growing on the north side or the south side of trees (given the adventure is taking place in medieval Europe)"? If the reader chooses South, we punish him by lowering his health 10 points due to being lost in the forest. If the reader goes North, we reward him with successfully finding the dame in distress.

The most difficult choice for every gamer: Save the World or Coin and Cleavage?
At the end of this post, I'd like to point out that Logical Conclusion Choice is one of many possible  mechanics in the genre of gamebook adventures. A book based entirely on Logical Conclusion Choices could feel like taking a test at school, bringing back some unpleasant memories. However, this kind of choice is one of the very limited amount of mechanics in the genre of gamebooks that keeps the player in full control over the outcome of the adventure. Al Toro pointed out that an author must never cheat the player into the wrong decision by applying false clues. He also criticized me that I didn't mention choices that are not absolute, where the same choice could be either good or bad depending on the current stats of the protagonist. That would be the Strategic Choice approach Ashton Saylor had already talked about and I strongly recommend reading his post on the subject. Before you go off wandering to his blog, let me point out that Strategic (also known as Tactical) Choices also require application of "fog of war", hints and clues, because it should never be too obvious which way the player should go, otherwise there is no choice, it is simple "if - then" statement.

The Adventure Map of Short Gamebook Adventure

Here is a very Short Gamebook Adventure designed entirely on Logical Conclusion Choice Theory. You can also follow the step by step process of creating it at my personal blog 

Please remember, whatever you do, don't ever make your readers feel that the final outcome is the unjustified result of pure chance and blind guessing rather than a product of good performance and informed decisions.

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

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Gamebook Mechanics: Meaningful Choices

In my last post on Gamebook Theory, I covered the basic structure of any game (input - test of performance - feedback) and compared the mechanics of gamebooks to the ones in the genre of video games, ultimately arriving to the conclusion that choices are the only possible active gamebook input method. The rest of the input such as rolling dice, keeping track of stats, skillchecks or even flipping pages, I insist to move to the passive mechanics category, because they don't provide means for measuring skills or performance and therefore they don't allow the player to influence the outcome of the adventure one way or another (except if you believe that you are very skilled at rolling and re-rolling dice or keeping track of previous paragraphs, just in case you decide to change your decisions later, but I call all that cheating).

Please, don't take the controls out of the reader's hands
All that being said, we can summarize that choices are in fact the single most important game mechanic in the genre of gamebook adventures. The writer may have a great story to tell, but without meaningful choices in the course of the adventure, the book is not a gamebook, it is just a book with multiple endings. Of course, the exact opposite, bunch of choices without any story, is just as bad, because the player isn't provided enough information through narrative to be able to make a good educated guess about the possible outcomes of the decisions he is going to make during the game. Just like everything else in life, the goal here is to achieve good balance between narrative and choices.

I remember reading an article on writing gamebooks some time ago, which was listing the struggles new authors in the genre run into. To my surprise, I found out that most of them were having the problem of coming up with too many possible choices (up to 10 per paragraph) their readers had to pick from. Honestly, I've always had the opposite problem. It's always been difficult for me to create many enough choices, because I want every single one of them to result in meaningful consequences and therefore to provide a positive or negative impact over the course of the adventure.

See, the choices we can make in real life situations are practically unlimited. When standing in front of a door, a person could choose to knock on it and wait for response, they could choose to open the door and storm in, they could also choose to turn around and leave (especially if this is the office of the boss and the intention was to ask for a payraise), or they could even decide to start jumping in one spot (it sure doesn't make any sense, but it is still an option anyway). Of course, in a gamebook adventure, the last option wouldn't even be presented to the player as it is meaningless, because it, first, doesn't make any sense, and second, it doesn't change the course of the game in any way. I tend to believe that the option to 'turn around and leave' should also not be available to the player, because he's already made the decision to go to the office of the boss and the only question is 'in what fashion does he want to go in'. Even if a writer prefers to provide many choices with the intention to create the illusion of freedom, consider all the additional work he has to do in order to provide all the paragraphs for each outcome of those meaningless choices. That is a huge waste of time and writing space - a luxury most game designers are forced to stay away from. It is also worth mentioning that making a choice, which is changing the immediate narrative path without affecting knowledge, stats or the final outcome of the adventure one way or another is not a gamebook mechanic. What I am trying to point out is that choices which are ultimately neither good or bad create an interactive novel, not a game. If there is no way to fail, the experience is still there, but there is no gameplay.

The decisions people make, in real life or during a game, situations like the one in the example above, are not related to the door itself. They would rely on previously gained knowledge and the expected outcome of each available choice. The action must depend on the possible consequences of opening that door (getting a raise or being yelled at, or fired even) and the statistical possibilities of the given outcomes (I doubt you would ask the boss for more money if your chance of getting the raise is only slim to none, while the possibility of being fired is much greater).

It is of extreme importance that the game designer provides enough information and presents multiple clues ahead of time, so the choices his players make are the product of strong logic and calculated risk, not the result of blind guessing. Then and only then, the final outcome depends on the performance and the input from the gamer instead of being the aftermath of pure luck. For an example, if the player finds himself facing a door or multiple doors, never mentioned before, there is no way for him to make an educated decision, weighting in advance the possible consequences of his actions. There is nothing meaningful in such situation.

The main problem with meaningful choices, all authors run into, is the balance between not providing enough information (which door choice) and providing too much information (cake or death choice). Here is an example of [which door choice]: "You are standing in front of three doors. Only one of them will lead you to success. The other two lead to certain death. Choose one!"; And here is an example of [cake or death choice]: "You are standing in front of two doors. There is a Deadly Demon hiding behind the left one. Behind the right door you would find gold and glory. Choose one!"

The answer to the problem above is called applying some "fog of war". The game designer must hide the possible consequences and "only have the roughest outline spelled out", but should also leave enough clues buried in the text, so the reader is given the opportunity to apply his skills of observation, paying close attention, critical thinking, risk management, memorizing important details, educated guessing, weighting possibilities and drawing logical conclusions.

When the "fog of war" is applied appropriately, the choice becomes a "Logical Conclusion Choice".

My favorite example of a Logical Conclusion Choice is one, which I found more than 20 years ago in the fantasy style epic hero gamebook "The Master of Darkness" published in Bulgaria by George M George (a nickname of George Mindizov). My protagonist found himself in the middle of a wide open field. There were mountains with carved in caves standing proud far to the west and there was a dark, almost completely black, thunderstorm front approaching very fast from the east. The choice was between running for the mountains, so the hero could take shelter in a cave or hiding from the rain under a tree with thick crown, which was standing alone nearby. My logic was to avoid getting soaking wet and possibly ill from the cold rain while fleeing to the cave, so I decided to wait out for the storm to pass under the tree. I learned a very valuable lesson: Lightnings hit the tallest objects around and very unfortunately for my protagonist, that was the same tree I sent him to. Needless to say, that was a gravely mistake and it resulted in the instant death of the hero (see, no self-respecting author will make their reader lose 50 points of health when hit by a lightning - this is a total annihilation event) and while I was upset about the mistake I just made and the punishment I was forced to suffer, I felt that it was fair, justified and completely deserved. The immediate danger of being hit by a lightning wasn't even mentioned in the text at all, but I should have deciphered the 'fog of war' hint in the word 'thunder' before the word 'storm'. The instant death punishment was very logical under the existing circumstances.

Annihilate your player only if he makes a gravely mistake

Please keep in mind that not every single choice in a gamebook should be a Logical Conclusion Choice, because that would make the readers feel like they are taking a test in school instead of enjoying a good compelling story of a great adventure, but there must be a good number of Logical Conclusion Choices present throughout the book, so the player is kept in full control of the final outcome and ultimate victory.

Remember, the author should never take away from his readers the satisfaction of feeling that success is direct result of good performance, not random guessing and pure luck.

This is all for today, but I promise to give you a very detailed guide of how to create Logical Conclusion Choices step by step in my next blogpost here on LloydOfGamebook. Until then, as Stuart likes to say, 'Happy Gamebooking!'

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

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
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 (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
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: 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) 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) logic puzzles and riddles (players would gain information or items when solving them) 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:, or my own blog at Visual Gamebook Adventures.

Peter Agapov
Game Designer at
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 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, 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

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