Sunday, November 8, 2015

Gamebook Theory: mechanics of GAMEbooks (input - test of performance - feedback)

Attention: a newer revised and better version of this post is available on

As I mentioned in my previous post, some people believe that there is something wrong with the genre of gamebooks and they think that it is impossible to write a good one due to the lack of game mechanics to be used. I admit that there is some truth to the limitations, but the article narrative is not a game mechanic is entirely wrong and in this post I will explain exactly why that is.

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 move the mouse, click a button, move the pawn in a board game, etc and we call that 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 a clue if he or she is doing well or not.

Here is the basic structure of any game: input - test of the input (performance test) - feedback

I already said 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 elements of any game! 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 game at each level is the same as the level before and the only difference is the increased difficulty due to the faster speed of the game? Sure, that does make it more challenging, but how much closer to the final goal does it make you feel? You don't have any idea how far from winning the game you are, because you have no definitive final destination set. Kill as many enemies as possible and move on to the next level! That could be fun for a short period of time, but how much feeling of achievement do you have when you die at level 10 and you have no idea what the total number of levels is? Isn't it so much better to have the narrative feedback of "you just left the village and now you are in the forest. You are now one step closer to the mountains and therefore one step closer to finding and killing the evil wizard, who lives up there... Now you have overcome the wizard and you are victorious! The land is free of evil and everybody will live happily ever after"? Sure, a good narrative limits the replayability of the game, because you know exactly what is going to happen next time, 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? The answer lies in the fact that we, as humans, like diversity and the feeling of accomplishment. It is hardwired in our brains by nature through the process of evolution (you can read more about that in my earlier post: psychology of games). Just ask your mother or wife to cook your favorite meal every single day forever! Eat it morning, lunch and dinner. How long do you think you can eat the same meal, even if it is your favorite one? We like diversity and we like having a final goal to reach, and the answer to that in the art of making games lies in providing the player with a diverse storyline and a clearly defined ultimate goal.

So, we have now covered the feedback mechanic in games and explained why the narrative of a gamebook is the best possible solution for providing feedback. Let's now talk about input in video games and the input mechanics of gamebooks!

For the purpose of this post, we will take an example of a jump and run video game and compare it to a similar situation in a gamebook. Imagine that the obstacle you have to overcome is a deep chasm. Negative feedback in both, videogame and gamebook, would be: the character falls into the chasm and dies. Positive feedback would be: the character makes it safely to the other side and the adventure continues. You can provide this feedback through video or through narrative, it doesn't make a difference for the outcome.

Leaping a chasm in a Video Game

In order for the game to decide which one of the two possible outcomes to provide on the screen, it has to test the input of the player. An artificial intelligence test of the input in a video game would look something like this:

1. if the jump button is hit too soon, Super Mario is going to jump, but will fall into the chasm before he reaches the other side;

2. if the jump button was hit too late (after he walked off the edge), Super Mario is going to fall down into the chasm, because he didn't jump;

3. if a wrong button was hit (such as the run button instead of the jump button), Super Mario is not going to jump at all and he will fall in the chasm.

4. ideally, Super Mario is going to jump and make it to the other side if the jump button was hit somewhere between too soon and too late.

Leaping a chasm in a Gamebook Adventure

Unfortunately, we don't have the luxury of testing coordination (which button was hit) and speed (when was the button hit) in a Gamebook Adventure, so we replace testing those skills with the only other available option. No, we are not going to ask the player if he would like to jump! Obviously, the character needs to jump, otherwise falling down to its death is inevitable. Instead of asking a stupid question, we are going to test the stats of the player. Example1: roll 2 dice and add the value of your strength. If the number is equal or greater than 10 then you succeed and you continue on your adventure. If the number is lower than 10, you fall down in the chasm and die.

This is where a lot of people get upset. Rolling the dice is not a fair gameplay mechanic, because the outcome seems to be a matter of luck rather than a consequence based on the skills and knowledge of the player. That would be true only if the author has done a bad job writing the game part of the book and he or she didn't give the gamer a chance to build up the strength value of the character earlier in the adventure. See, the input in this example shouldn't be the randomness of the dice roll. The input is the value of the strength skill that should have been increased earlier in the book by making a meaningful choice. Maybe there was an option to purchase a headband of strength earlier in the game or there was a section where you had to choose between eating a good meal or picking up a fight in the tavern where the outcome turns out to be increased strength stat from eating the meal or loss of strength points due to injuries suffered in the fight.

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 guessing due to lack of meaningful information.

There are two forms of feedback in Gamebooks: instant and delayed. In the example above, leaping over the chasm is a form of delayed feedback. A form of instant feedback is the instructions to increase your 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 through forcing the gamer to assess the situation he or she was put in and then select the most rational action for the best possible outcome of the storyline and for the eventual success of the game character. 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 be, if it was putting the gamer in a 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"

Monday, November 2, 2015

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

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"