“What keeps you coming back to a game?”
I’ve read a few articles recently chewing over the question of how the world of tabletop games could learn from video games, or vice versa, or which was better. Firstly, I totally refute the idea that one is better than the other. Let’s not even look at that. But the question of one industry learning from the other…now that’s intriguing.
The thoughts coalesced recently during a conversation. I have a good friend who is an experienced video games designer, both for big budget productions and his own indie games. I was telling him about a tabletop game I’m working on. He asked a simple question, “What makes it replayable?”
Normally, our thoughts turn this question into, “What makes this game different every time you play it?” These aren’t the same questions. As an aside, dear reader, I was very confident that my game had oodles of replayability! In fact the question should be, “What keeps you coming back to a game?”
I bounced the question back to the video game world. Take a game like Super Mario. Surely that’s the same each time you play it? And yet it was wildly popular – arguably it still is. I considered the video games that I have replayed many times and looked for analogous experiences in tabletop games. What was it that kept me coming back? How can I transfer that to a tabletop experience?
My Personal History of Playing Video Games
At the start: Elite
At the top of the list is my first immersive, obsessive game. I recall playing Elite on my Commodore 64 way into the night on my 80s bedroom, certainly long after I should have been in bed on a school night. It was probably the first open-world game. It allowed exploration, trade, combat, upgrades to your ship, secret missions and deeply frustrating docking procedures. Why did I love it? The freedom. The sense of discovery and the gradual accrual of wealth and resources. For the first time, a video game seemed boundless and yet you were in a fully realised universe of pirates, traders, mining and shady deals. In retrospect, though, it had to be based on a simple set of parameters – the computer systems just weren’t up to handling more! How is this analogous to a tabletop game experience? The open worlds of RPGs spring to mind, games you can form relationships with and sink into for long periods. Equally, the simplicity of the game mechanics can be a thing of beauty. Just a few simple parameters that express themselves as endless gameplay. I’m endlessly in awe of the simple beauty of Pandemic. A feeling that I’m told scientists get when they consider a well-made and economical equation. E=MC2 .
Lessons: Immersion. Simplicity of mechanics can = complex gameplay.
The Playstation Years
Years later, as my housemates splurged on a first generation Playstation, I had a second phase of video gameplaying. This time we were regularly in awe of the visuals that the technology could produce. Also, we had entered a new arena of storytelling. During this phase, it was clear that video games could soon rival films as an immersive, storytelling artform. Metal Gear:Solid and Silent Hill wowed us with their atmospherics and set pieces. To this day the sound of crows squawking reminds me of the long elevator descent towards Vulcan Raven. Not to mention the endless fear as you avoided the undead in Silent Hill. But the pinnacle of gaming at that time was the obscene amount of my life I poured into Final Fantasy VIII. This was the first time I’d encountered a game which didn’t tie you to a linear path. There was a story – and it was well told – but you had the freedom to explore, take detours into side quests and win the game through a number of routes. All these three games had strong, cinematic plots with distinct characters, depth and humour.
Lessons: A strong narrative with clear characters.
The Later years: gaming with my kids
Now there is a big gap in my video gaming. Essentially it restarts when my own children begin gaming. Games have matured, new genres have proliferated. I play Need for Speed: Rivals in which I revel in the crazy stunts and cool manoeuvres. Lamborghinis and Ferraris corkscrewing through the air or sliding sideways through street furniture. Minecraft absorbed us for hours, exploring, creating, cooperating and battling beasties. Subnautica’s absorbing exploration and crafting. All these games gave my son and I stories of our own to tell. We shared the cool things we’d done. We built a common experience of scrapes, stunts and wonders.
Lessons: We like to share our stories. Experience cool narratives.
This final lesson is interesting. YouTube is full of films showing gameplay: Fortnite, minecraft, Star Wars Battlefront. People enjoy watching other people play. They enjoy each other’s game narratives. They laugh at the pratfalls and thrill at the action. Let’s transfer this to tabletop games. Sites like Geek and Sundry do a mighty fine job of televising tabletop gaming. Wil Wheaton works hard to overlay a narrative on tabletop gameplay in his rightly popular Tabletop series. Unfortunately, placing train carriages or removing coloured blocks isn’t a very compelling narrative format. RPGs are better fit as a game format for storytelling. Witness the success of critical Role.
If one of the most satisfying aspects of video games, is strong characters, compelling stories, cool events you can share and retell, then where is the equivalent in tabletop gaming? ‘Role playing games!’ You cry with one voice, and I concede the point. But what about in board games? Maybe board games aren’t the place for a cinematic narrative. Maybe strong characters and plots are superfluous. Board games are a broad, broad church and these themes I’m emphasising won’t enhance every game. Would Sagrada be better this way? Characters in board games are at best a collection of stats and a special ability; a piece of artwork; seasoning at best. Plots are often dictated, linear.
The growth in legacy games indicates a change here, and one we should watch with keenness. Legacy games give us, at their best, a board game you can live with, one to which one an form a relationship, invest in. A game in which we see characters and stories develop in satisfying ways. At our Wednesday night gaming club, Betrayal at House on the Hill is our most replayed game. While the characterisation is non-existent, the plots are endlessly surprising and engaging. We often end with the players sharing their ‘best bits’ replaying key moments and enjoying the emotional journey.
Video games and tabletop games have loads of synergy. This isn’t news. It has been fun to critically evaluate my video gaming experience and to examine how this can transfer to tabletop games. What has been most eye-opening is to feel my thoughts coalesce around this idea of plot and character; of stories we can tell of our exploits. There is a growing movement towards depth, emotional complexity and an almost novel-like sense of narrative. I, for one, welcome it and aim to bring it directly to my game design.