Monday, April 16, 2012

Story Realms Weekly Update: Our Design Philosophy

By Julian
It’s time for the Weekly Story Realms Update again.  Looks like we were a bit scarce on the content since the last update, but we’ve got a lot of content coming at you this week so stay tuned.

Also, thanks to all of our faithful readers that entered our I-Spy contest.  We got a wonderful amount of entries that we are still sorting through but we will be declaring a winner and drawing for additional prizes in short order.  Look for contest results this Wednesday!

For Story Realms, we’ve been hard at work going back and forth with our new art director from Game Salute, Dann May.  We plan on rolling out a feature of the game every single week and hopefully have some art in short order to go along with it.  Recently, however, we’ve had some readers ask us questions about our philosophy on game design and story in games.  So this week, we thought we would answer a few of those questions and share some of the thoughts that have helped shape the design of Story Realms.
Shaping the Design.
Reader Question: What are your thoughts on story in role-playing games?
Well we are making a game called Story Realms, so obviously, story is pretty important to us. Role-playing games definitely provide a unique story opportunity because the act of play helps create the actual story.  All the storyteller has at the start is really just an outline for how the story should go.  The players and the storyteller fill in all the exciting details along the way through decisions, role-playing, and the roll of the dice.  It is our belief that in a RPG, the story should come first above the needs for mechanics and specific game rules.  That’s not to say that the storyteller or player should just bend, break or ignore the rules whenever they see fit.  It’s more a belief that the rules should be there only enough to support an exciting story and then they should get the heck out of the way.  Often, the rules in a RPG try to be way more detailed and simulative of the real world than they need to be to support and exciting story.  My most ridiculous example comes from the 3rd edition D&D rulebook.  In a game with fantastical creatures, mermaids, and the possibility of underwater adventure, the designers decided to include rules for water pressure.  As if anybody telling the story of a grand adventure in a mermaid castle under the see want to address how painful the water pressure is going to get at 1000 feet below the surface. 

In Story Realms, we are trying to provide just enough rules to make the world of Storm Hollow feel believable, exciting, and consistent where it should be consistent.  We want the players and the storyteller to feel like there are enough rules to support any decision they could make.  However, we strongly believe that rules in a story driven game should “feel believable” way more than they ever need to “simulate reality.”  These might sound similar but they are actually very different goals.  Hit points are a classic example of feeling believable while not simulating reality at all.  People can believe that a heroic person can take some bumps and bruises, endure several blows in a fight, but that should eventually succumb to their injuries if they get damaged too much.  It’s not at all realistic for someone to be stabbed several times with a sword and still be operating at full capacity with absolutely no worries about bleeding to death.  Hit points are not realistic at all, but they are believable and certainly better for telling a great heroic story than an accurate damage simulation would be.  Our philosophy is that the rules need to always be working to tell a more entertaining and more memorable story while allowing for as much creativity in play as possible.  We know a rule is getting to be too much of a simulation if must be looked up repeatedly because it’s too complex to remember, if it brings the fun and action to stop,  or we find ourselves talking about some scientific law of physics we are reproducing rather than a cool story moment we are setting up.

Reader Question: What are your thoughts on components?
As game designers, it is sometimes frustrating to admit just how much components matter.  We’d like to think that a finely designed game can stand on its own regardless of cool bits or fancy art.  To some degree this is true.  We playtested Story Realms at Game Storm and got an extremely positive response with absolutely no character art or polished graphic design and components that we cut out of cardstock.  However, we also full well know that pretty components DO matter.  They get people in the mood to play the game and reinforce the fun and drama.  Well designed, well thought out components also help make parts of the rules so self-evident they negate some of the need for rules explanation.  That’s why we are so happy to be partnered up with Game Salute. We met our project manager from Game Salute, David McKenzie, at Game Storm and got some fantastic ideas for component improvements.  More recently, we have been chatting back and forth pretty regularly our previously mentioned art director Dann May and he is seriously helping to level up our components as well.  Good art and good components help get people excited to play and help the game run smoothly.  It may seem silly, but getting a player exited to play is often more important than actually delivering a well-balanced play experience.  Not that balanced rules aren't important, but a set of perfectly balanced rules that leave the player totally unexcited don't make for a fun game.  Conjuring that excitement is important.  Plus good components can really improve the actual game rules and play experience all by themselves. The old saying about a picture being worth a thousand words holds true for game design.  The right component can be worth a thousand words of game rules and minutes upon minutes of play time.  That is certainly time worth saving. 

And Finally, A Bit About Our General Game Design Philosophy
I thought we should close by just sharing what I think is our core design philosophy.  Awhile back we spent a year or more getting everywhere and nowhere with a space themed game that we worked on together.  We tried iteration after iteration and never really got around to the great game we were looking for.  Since then, we’ve honed our design chops quite a bit and our approach to game design now focuses on the very elements that we were missing in that project.  For us, it all comes down to essential experience and resonant theme.   I could easily go on and on about specifics of different mechanics we think work or don’t work and specific design choices we favor or don’t favor.  However, I think ultimately we come back to “What is the essential experience we want to deliver in this game” and “What about this game is going to resonate with players, draw them in, and give them a great story to tell afterward.”  Those are two standards we hold every game rule and every design choice up to time and time again.  If something starts to stray too far away from serving the essential experience or helping to support the resonant theme of the game, we start to rethink, change, or cut ruthlessly until the experience is back on track.  It can be easy, in the middle of project, to follow one design choice or one seemingly brilliant idea down the rabbit hole so far that you get lost and forget where you were trying to go in the first place. 

With Story Realms, we started with a clear statement about what kind of experience we wanted to create and have gone back to that core philosophy time and time again.  The specific words have changed over time but the game has always been about creating a game that lets everyone in the family enjoy epic adventures in a relatively short period of time and having a great story to tell about the adventure afterwards.  Sticking sharply to this goal has served us well as a guiding principle and helped us explore a whole host of ideas without ever getting so far out there that we stop making the game we meant to make.

That’s it for now.  Nex,t we plan on bringing you the story of how this Story Realms game got started.  There was an unfortunate event that inspired it all.  An experience that many parents are all too familiar with: playing a game your kids are super excited to play that totally fails to deliver the fun.

In the meantime, if you have specific questions about Story Realms you would like us to answer, leave a comment on the blog or e-mail us at and we’ll be happy to answer.  Also, we will be at Just A Game Con in Corvallis, Oregon this weekend (April 20th thru the 21st) so join us there if you can make it and you can try out the game for yourself!  We’ll be wearing baseball T’s with the Escapade Games Logo on them so we should be easy to find.

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