Sunday, June 30, 2019

Trap for Winners: a gamebook that turned into a computer game

Most of the time, I write about Gamebook Theory and I enjoy every single keystroke on that subject. However, this month, my post will be about a very good gamebook, which just recently became a computer game.

Let me first start with a little bit of gamebook history from the 1990s!

 After the fall of the Soviet Union, most of Eastern Europe suffered serious economic problems. In the winter of 1996/1997, Bulgaria's recession went even further and the country was hit by a few months of hyper-inflation. As a result, nobody could afford to buy a computer or a game console. These, otherwise unfortunate events, allowed the more affordable form of gaming - branching narrative literature - to become the kid's main choice for personal entertainment in that era and created a whole new generation of gamebook fans. In the midst of those events, a true legend emerged: the gamebook author Michael Mindcrime. According to his own words, after reading a gamebook for the first time, he though "This sucks! I can write a much better one". The rest is history. He became the most recognized, the most published and the most notorious gamebook author in Bulgaria.

You are probably thinking that Mindcrime doesn't sound like an Eastern-European name. You are correct. Back then, the consumers disregarded anything that was made in the Eastern Block, so many of the local authors were forced to use fake English names or western hemisphere sounding nicknames, if you prefer. His real name is Dimitar, but his family called him Misho. That is short for Mikhail, which in English is spelled as Michael. He came up with the last name of his pseudonym while working on his first gamebook. The whole time, he was listening to the album "Operation Mindcrime" by Queensr├┐che. And there you go! Now the whole world knows how and why Dimitar Slaveykov became Michael Mindcrime.

"Trap for Winners" was his 22nd officially published gamebook. It saw the light of day sometime back in 1997 and it is one of his best works in the genre. For reasons I can't explain, I didn't get to read it back then, but everything else from that author was standing out from all other Bulgarian and English gamebooks I've ever seen. He is famous for perfectly balancing the difficulty in his gamebooks, for creating great informed choices and successfully integrating many logic puzzles and riddles in his adventures. The outcome in his games always depends on the player's choices and performance, not on blind guessing and pure chance.

So, when about an year ago, PrimeGames announced that they were about to make a computer game based on a Michael Mindcrime's book, I was absolutely ecstatic. I dug deep into my gamebook collection and there it was - the original, paper version of "Trap for Winners". I wasn't disappointed. It was a great read and I dare to say that the message it carries is more relevant nowadays than it was back when it was first realeased in 1997.

So, "Trap for Winners" puts the reader in the shoes of an undercover agent for the Department of Foreign Civilizations, who is dispatched to an enemy world. The adventure takes place sometime in the future when our home planet is trying to apply for membership in the Galactic Union of Advanced Civilizations.

After a devastating war with an alien race, Earth has emerged victorious and hastaken over  the hostile planet Dorya. As a part of Earth's Occupying Corps, the reader will have to investigate all the suspicious circumstances that have shaped the course of the war. He, playing as the undercover agent Steve Harrison, will have to balance between the pursuit of knowledge and securing the superiors' favor; between suppressing violent rebels and his own conscience. And what he'll discover just might change Earth's destiny forever.

See, even though, the book (published in 1997) precedes the War in the Middle East, many of the choices are similar to the problems the United States Military had to face there. The moral dilemmas of treating the enemy with respect or brutality are probably as old as the world. Also, should the locals, seemingly peaceful citizens, be treated as innocent people or handled with an iron fist? Would you be easy on the prisoners of war, let them rest and feed them well or would you rather push them to work harder in the prison camps? There are many choices like the ones above in "Trap for Winners". Neither one of them is entirely right or wrong. Depending on the reader, his preference and performance, there are three different victory endings available. Got you interested yet?

There are also many good things to be said about the computer adaptation by Prime Games too. First and most importantly, the translation from Bulgarian to English is excellent. Mindcrime was never famous for his literature, but his writing style is nevertheless pretty good. The translation and further editing allowed the quality of the text to be elevated at least one level up. It is easy to read, but not at all simplistic. The soundtrack is also very well selected. It helps the reader to unconsciously emerge into the world of the book. The gameplay is very intuitive. The few pictures in the game could have been done a little bit better and I wish there were more of those, but I also understand that this is one of the greatest expenses in the game design industry.

There is, however, one major difference between the gamebook and its adaptation for the personal computer and that is the minigame, which takes place during every mission on the planet Dorya. I've heard some complaints from fans that this addition to the original book distracts and takes the focus away from the actual story, but in my personal opinion, it is a well needed break from reading blocks of text. It took me a couple of failures to get the hang of it, but once mastered, I started enjoying these minigame missions.

Before I finish this post, I must say that Michael Mindcrime published a total of 30 gamebooks between the years of 1993 and 1999. Unfortunately for all his fans, he no longer writes interactive adventures. According to his own words, gamebooks can't provide enough income and he has moved on to other endeavors. However, 29 of his books remain unpublished in English, so I am hoping that the people at Prime Games would chose to translate and adapt many more of them in the near future.

In conclusion, I'd like to add that I've mentioned Michael Mindcrime, as an example of an outstanding gamebook designer, many times in my posts on Gamebook Theory, but never had a reference point to him for all my English speaking friends. I am going to be eternally grateful to Prime Games for translating his work into English and for making one of my childhood dreams - to play a computer game designed by Michael Mindcrime - a reality.

The game "Trap for Winners" is now available for purchase on Steam:

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 31, 2019

Gamebook Theory: Mistake #5 (creating a traitor instead of a hero)

This month, I'd like to take a look at the evolution of establishing the main character's stats in the gamebook genre. Unfortunately, the limitations of the medium don't allow us to test the player's speed and coordination, so we are stuck testing the protagonist's stats instead. The final outcome of the adventure very often depends on those numbers. Therefore, it is of vital importance that the reader has a way to influence the protagonist's stats. Otherwise, the eventual success in the game depends mostly on luck instead of player's performance.

Lets take a look at the evolution of establishing stats in the genre, starting with the oldest method and moving towards the newer and more effective ones!

1. Randomizing the stats, using dice rolls.

I still clench my teeth when remembering the bad dice rolls I had during character initialization in Fighting Fantasy books. I can't believe that some of my fellow authors still use the same outdated mechanic today. Its no fun being doomed because of bad luck in the very beginning of the adventure. This mechanic played its role in the dawn of the genre, but it should never be used in modern gamebooks.

Example: To determine your Initial SKILL, STAMINA, and LUCK scores:
SKILL Roll one die. Add 6 to the number and enter this total in the SKILL box
STAMINA Roll two dice. Add 12 to the number, box on the Adventure Sheet.
LUCK Roll one die. Add 6 to the number and enter this total in the LUCK box.

Using this method, with a little bit of bad luck, it is easy to create a traitor protagonist, whose skills work against the reader's interest instead of helping him achieve victory. Not fair, is it?

2. Building a hero by distributing a given number of stat points.

This method is much better and fair to the readers. It is better because they can create a protagonist in accordance with their own preference. It is fair because the final outcome of the adventure depends on the reader's decision how to apply the available points during the process of creating the main character. However, there is initially no way for the reader to know which skills would be vitally important for success in the game. Therefore, on the first couple of attempts, the outcome still depends on some luck and blind guessing, not on informed decisions. Another problem associated with this mechanic is the significant time consumption in preparation before the start of the game.

Example: Distribute 10 points between the following three skills however you please:
3.Hand to hand Combat

Later in the adventure, the reader could be prompted to chose between sneaking into the chief's tent to strangle him, openly challenge the chief to a sword fight or killing him from a distance. Depending on the choice, a different skill would be tested.

3. Choosing a hero from a pool of pregenerated characters.

This method avoids time consumption and blind guessing in the beginning of the adventure. It is naturally expected that the author has done the heavy lifting for his readers and has created different protagonists with comparable chance of success. The outcome of the game should then be dependent on series of tactical choices in accordance with the main character, which was selected in the beginning.

Example: Chose one of the following:
Forest Elf: [Swordfighting: 3] [Archery: 6] [Hand to Hand Combat: 1]
Medieval Knight: [Swordfighting: 5] [Archery: 1] [Hand to Hand Combat: 4]
Desert Barbarian: [Swordfighting: 3] [Archery: 1] [Hand to Hand Combat: 6]

Once again, Later in the adventure, the reader could be prompted to chose between sneaking into the chief's tent to strangle him, openly challenge the chief to a sword fight or killing him from a distance. Depending on the choice, a different skill would be tested.

This method could be easily combined with the previous one by first choosing one of few possible main characters and then freely distributing a set number of points between their preassigned skills.

4. Train the hero and build up his stats during the adventure

My personal favorite method is building up the stats as the adventure progresses. Using this method, the faith of the main character falls entirely into the hands of the reader and the decisions he makes throughout of the adventure. When fighting the final boss at the end of the book, success depends on the stats accumulated during the course of the game.

- 1 -
You are a young and brave teenager. Your little beloved sister was recently abducted by the Evil Wizard from the North. You leave on the quest to find her and bring her back home. On your way out of the village you could stop by your cousin, who is one of the finest soldiers this land has ever seen (go to 2); you may decide to visit your grandfather, who was once part of the archer battalion (go to 3) or alternatively, you could see your uncle, who is the blacksmith (episode 4)

- 2 -
Your cousin gives you his enchanted wristband of power. Add 5 points to your Hand to Hand Combat skill and leave the village on paragraph 5!

- 3 -
 Your grandpa takes his old army bow down from the wall and hands it to you. It is enchanted. Add 5 points to your Archery skill and leave the village on paragraph 5!

- 4 -
Your uncle, the blacksmith, gifts you one of the newest swords he's made. There is an enchanted stone built into the handle. Add 5 points to your Swordfighting skill and leave the village on paragraph 5!

On your way out of the village, you must decide which path you'll take. If you want to go through the Forest of the Elves (+5 Archery skill), turn to 6. If you prefer to cross the Desert of the Barbarians (+5 Hand to Hand Combat), turn to 7 or you could head out to the Castle of the Great Knight on paragraph 8 (+5 Swordfighting).

Yada, yada, yada...

- 100 -
You set a beautiful virgin from captivity in the Dark Castle. Before she heads home, she gives you a kiss on the cheek. Your self esteem is boosted. Distribute 5 points to skills any way you prefer and keep reading!

And so on...

At the end of the adventure: Chose between sneaking into the chief's tent to strangle him (Hand to Hand Combat > 7 requred), openly challenge the chief to a sword fight (Swordfighting skill > 7 required) or killing him from a distance (Archery skill > 7 required).

Note: The gains in the examples above are too obvious, because I wanted to illustrate the idea of building up the protagonist's stats. Apply some "fog of war" at your discretion to make the choices less predictable to your readers!

Of course, this method could also be combined with the two mentioned above: choosing a pregenerated character, distributing additional points between his skills and then receiving bonus points throughout the adventure.

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, March 29, 2019

Gamebook Theory: Grave Mistake #4 (branching alone isn't enough)

As I promised in my previous post, this month we'll talk about branching in gamebooks and here is a very bold statement about that:

Branching creates choices, but choices alone don't create a game.

To better illustrate what I am trying to say, I will give you the following two examples:

Example 1:

1. You are at a crossroads. If you want to turn left, go to 2! If you prefer to turn right, go to paragraph 3!

2. You found a Magic Sword. Continue to paragraph 4!

3. You fall into a trap. Your adventure ends here.

4. Using your newly found Sword, you defeat the bad guy and you win fame and glory. The end.

Is this example interactive? Yes, it sure is, because there is a choice to be made.

Is the outcome a direct result of the reader's performance? No, it is not. The outcome here depends on pure chance, because the reader had no way of guessing which choice leads to death and which choice leads to cake. This is rather a "Which Door Choice". Note: see the gamebook choice classification by Ashton Saylor!

Do you see what is missing? There is no test of performance. The outcome depends entirely on luck.

Example 2:

1. The local Elder tells you that according to a centuries old legend, the Magic Sword could be found in the lands to the north. You leave the village and the beautiful sunset behind your back. Soon you are standing at a crossroads. If you want to turn left, go to 2! If you prefer to turn right, go to 3!

2. You continue walking to the north. A little bit later you find a Magic Sword. Turn to 4!

3. You continue walking to the south. A little bit later you fall into a trap. Game Over.

4. Using your newly found Sword, you defeat the bad guy and you win fame and glory. The end.

Do you see the difference? Do you see how we tested the reader's general knowledge, attention span, memory and logic?

a) General Knowledge: it is a well known fact that the sun always sets to the west.

b) Attention Span: the reader had to notice the clues buried in the text: the sun is setting behind his/her back.

c) Short Term Memory: the reader had to memorize the information from the village Elder and the fact that the Magic Sword is in the lands to the north.

d) Logic: if the sunset is behind the protagonist, then he is facing east and therefore must turn left (to the north).

Of course, we don't have to test all four in every choice. We could test just the memory by mentioning in the introduction that there is a Magic Sword in the lands to the north. A hundred paragraphs later we could ask the reader if he wants to go north or south. Actually, in this example, we would also be testing the attention, not only the memory, but you get the idea.

I was very surprised to find out that many authors complain that they come up with too many choices for a given situation and they have a hard time bringing the number down to acceptable levels. Imagine that in the example above at the crossroads, we ask the reader if he wants to 1. Climb the nearby tree; 2. Dig a hole in the ground; 3. Kill the ant crawling on his arm; 4. Break the crossroads sign; 5 Stare at the clouds.

Sure, all those are valid action possibilities, but what difference does any of those choices make in the grand scheme of things? Each one of those scenarios simply redirects the reader to a separate narrative line, but it makes no difference for the final outcome of the adventure. Those choices are irrelevant to the actual game part of the gamebook and should be removed from it. This is like the Chekhov's Gun Principle: "If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired". Otherwise, it should have not been mentioned at all on the first place.

I have the exact opposite problem: I can't come up with many enough (at least 2 or ideally 3) meaningful options, because every single choice in a gamebook must make a difference one way or another (change of stats, finding an item, gaining valuable information and so on).

In conclusion, I am eager to remind you that unlike traditional literature, the goal of a gamebook isn't to surprise the reader unexpectedly at the end of the story. It is the exact opposite. A good gamebook author would lead the readers hand-in-hand through the MODERATE CHALLENGES of the game and HELP them achieve ultimate success at the end of the adventure.

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, February 20, 2019

Gamebooks are back in the primelight: ChooseCo against Netflix!

A couple of months ago, Netflix advertised their first release of an interactive movie. Shortly after, news started emerging in the global media about "Choose You Own Adventure" suing Netflix over the branching format. Here is an article published by USA Today: 'Choose Your Own Adventure' publisher sues Netflix over 'Black Mirror: Bandersnatch'

How does this affect our beloved gamebook genre? Lets take a look and give it a thought!

First, I will give you my personal opinion about the Netflix Original movie "Black Mirror: Bandersnatch". It tells the story of a young game designer in the 1980s, who is creating a video game based on a gamebook. It has a great potential and a very promising beginning. It starts with the young programmer being invited to work at a professional video game publisher, where he meets one of his personal idols in the industry. Naturally, one of the first choices you have to make for the protagonist is: "Do you wish to work on the game at the office" or "Do you prefer to work on your project by yourself at home"?

If the choice, presented this way, seems completely blind to you, don't worry! That is exactly how I felt when I saw it on the screen for the first time and I had very limited time to make a decision. Thinking logically, I assumed that working at the office provided advantages such as access to unlimited professional resources, cutting edge technology and help from experienced game designers. Well, with a lot of creativity, the makers of the movie were able to trash this assumption. Sadly, the nonsense didn't end with this one. Instead, it gets from bad to worse further in the story. Because of all that, a movie couldn't possibly be more similar to "Choose Your Own Adventure" than this. All the illogical choices and blind guessing, the endless "try again" sequences and the whole arcade approach, forced me to give up at some point. The story also got weirder later on, but I guess that is to be expected with any "Black Mirror" production. Needless to say, I was extremely disappointed.

Because of how bad it is, the owner of "Choose Your Own Adventure" brand (ChooseCo LLC) probably has a good reason to sue Netflix over the branching narrative and horrible choices. However, poor gamebook design is not difficult to find and I would be hesitant to give reserved rights of it to just one game designer.

Joking aside, I heard a lot of chatter that ChooseCo is focusing on suing people and companies left and right for just mentioning the CYOA brand. It seems that the people, who inherited rights over the iconic series don't care to publish something new with better quality, but instead they are putting all their effort into making money by harassing new gamebook authors.

This could play out in two different ways. As most intellectual property lawsuits, this one could be considered more expensive to fight in front of a jury and Netflix could decide to settle outside of court for the small amount of a few million dollars. However, if the online streaming service has any intentions to continue publishing movies with similar format, they wouldn't care about the cost of winning this battle and would want to set a precedent in court, teaching ChooseCo a good lesson that it is not okay to pursue branching narrative game designers for mentioning "Choose Your Own Adventure" and comparing their products to it. The statement "My car is NOT a Mercedes, but looks like one" doesn't infringe the brand Daimler-Benz in any way. The folks at Hyundai know that very well.
Hyundai and Mercedes

If the big shots at Netflix decide to follow the latter approach and take the ChooseCo accusations to court, they would do the world a log of good by releasing the authors of gamebooks from the fear of being sued over the branching narrative format or comparing it to the world-famous series.

Either way, it is good for the whole genre that this scandal is being monitored by news media around the globe, reminding people about the good old gamebooks and of something that was once a worldwide phenomenon. Hopefully all this fuss is going to create a fresh new interest in our beloved genre.

I would like to end this post with the bold statement that books from the "Choose Your Own Adventure" series shouldn't be called gamebooks at all. Branching the narrative creates options, but it doesn't create meaningful choices and therefore, those books have nothing to do with real games. However, more on that next month here on in a post which will be called "Gamebook Theory: Grave mistake #4 (branching the story is not enough)".

Until then,
May The Dice Be With You!

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, January 9, 2019

Seven No-Trump

Never tell me I that I don't follow through on what I've promised to do.

Some five years ago, I wrote a post for Lloyd of Gamebooks which served as a brief introduction to Roger Zelazny's Amber books and, more generally, the setting around those books. This was an introduction to a coming review of a gamebook set within that Amber universe, Seven No-Trump, by Neil Randall.

I've read through the whole series of Amber novels a couple of times since I wrote that post. I finished rereading them again quite recently. My passionate love for the series reignited, I hungrily began to seek out more Amber stories.

This is how, some years after I found the book, I came to read Seven No-Trump.

The premise of the Crossroads series of gamebooks is quite rare - each book takes place within an established literary fantasy universe, giving the reader the chance to play through as characters within that universe. I've played only a handful of these books; they tend to be extremely story-heavy, with the player often reading through several pages of text before arriving at a choice. The books are well out of print these days; they were first published in the 1980s and, to my knowledge, never republished since. Given that this series involves stories in a number of intellectual properties by established authors, I'd be very curious to know what sort of deals were struck in order to write these books. This is a reminder that the popularity around gamebooks in the 80s was a potent publishing force, for sure.

As mentioned, Seven No-Trump is one of two books in the Crossroads series that take place within Zelazny's Amber universe, both written by Neil Randall. In this book, the player takes the role of Random, brother to Corwin and the various other princes of Amber, shortly after he becomes King of Amber, as detailed in the fifth book of Zelazny's series, The Courts of Chaos.

Seven No-Trump conforms to the story-heavy format established by other Crossroads books - and, viewed as an Amber short story, it really gets things right. In Zelazny's third Amber book, Sign of the Unicorn, we get a chapter in Random's voice; that voice is developed to the full here. Random is flippant, yet appreciative of the gravity of his new role as king; he acts with a bravado that belies the frequent self-questioning and self-doubt of his inner monologue. He is, quite simply, written as a credible, interesting character. It's rare in a gamebook - in those gamebooks outside of the Crossroads series, at any rate - to see so much space dedicated to expressing a character's voice, and his inner thoughts. Readers of Zelazny's Amber series already know Random, and the guy is presented as a somewhat amiable delinquent in those books. And yet, even without knowing those books, the reader has enough space here to get to know, and grow to like, Random.

From the perspective of an Amber fan, and viewing this book as an entry into Amber canon - or, at least, canon-ish Amber - it is a great gulp of water after a long drought. Some of its key players are those Amberites who don't receive much direct attention in the Corwin or Merlin chronicles - Caine and Llewella, notably - and having the chance to get to know them a little better is delightful. Seeing Brand in action again is a fucking joy. Benedict is somewhat underused here; even so, seeing him on the page once more is like chancing across an old friend after a decade apart.

And, perhaps best of all, the story is engaging, and thought-provoking. We are not falling into typical fantasy tropes, here; rather, the story concerns the impact of art upon those who view it, and whether the realities we can imagine are true realities, with their own lives, their own inner existences. It is, for sure, one of the more profound gamebooks that I've read.

Yet Seven No-Trump has flaws, too. Its story is excellent, and yet as a game it is poor. Choices are infrequent, and it's rarely difficult to choose the 'best' option - I successfully completed the game first time through, by the by. The game mechanics are very Dungeons & Dragons in tone - Random essentially has the six familiar D&D stats, which fall on a range of 3 to 18 (you don't get to roll stats; Random is assigned his scores at the start of the game). And yet these mechanics don't convey particularly well the abilities that are evident in Zelazny's books. In game terms, Random's Strength and Constitution scores are unexceptional for a 'normal' human being - and yet, in the books, we've seen him lift a car that's stuck in mud, or tirelessly duel his brother Corwin for a whole day. I can see that the Crossroads books want to maintain a consistent set of game mechanics, but they just don't really work, here.

Moreover, for those who know the Amber books well, there are a number of inconsistencies where Seven No-Trump doesn't quite match up with the Zelazny novels. As far as I can see from the book's foreword and afterword, Seven No-Trump was written sometime between the publication of the sixth and seventh Amber novels. Certainly, it takes place after Random becomes king at the end of the Corwin saga. And yet many details are glossed over. In the novels, Random is married to Vialle; here, she is never mentioned. Likewise, Random's son Martin is absent, and unmentioned. More jarringly, Brand is alive, with no information concerning his return from the great Abyss that lies beyond the Courts of Chaos. When Random encounters Brand once more, his attempted murder of Martin has apparently been forgotten.

Yes, okay, Seven No-Trump has been written for readers who might not necessarily know Zelazny's books, and venturing into such areas might derail the narrative somewhat. Still, knowing the books well, you have to work to put such details out of your mind. Might Seven No-Trump take place in some sort of 'alternate Amber', where the rules of reality are not quite in sync with those established elsewhere? Or is the book's author merely cutting some narrative corners? Why even take the time to decide, really?

Let's summarise, then. As a novella, Seven No-Trump is fantastic. As a game, and a piece of interactive fiction, it just barely meets the minimum criteria. I came to the book seeking an engaging Amber tale, and I loved it.

Neil Randall wrote another Crossroads gamebook set in Zelazny's Amber universe, The Black Road War. I'll write up a review of that as soon as I'm able - sometime around the year 2024, maybe.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Gamebook Theory: Grave Mistakes #3 (absence of Feedback)

Feedback is extremely important. As a matter of fact, it is one of the three very basic elements that form any game. A gamebook without good two-way author-reader communication is simply a branching narrative, not a gamebook. To my amazement (not amusement) even well established authors fail this step.

I have always pointed out that the three very basic elements are: input - test of performance - feedback. If one of them is missing, we can't call it a game.

If there is no input, the reader is just a spectator of the story in the book.

If there is input in the form of decisions, but no test of performance, then we simply create an illusion of a game and the outcome depends entirely on luck and pure chance rather than being the result of player skills. If you want to create a gambling game, go ahead and present your readers with bunch of "which door" and "left or right" choices!

If we have input and test of performance present, but there is no feedback, we have a player, who is absolutely clueless what is happening. If the reader doesn't know how his skills are being measured, he can't make an adjustment to his performance and the outcome still depends on luck and pure chance.

Videogames  have it pretty easy here. The on-screen animation and computer sound effects hardly ever fail their mission to inform the player about the quality of his/her performance.

Lets look at the different options for feedback in a gamebook!

1. No Feedback: Unfortunately, most gamebooks lack feedback entirely. When a choice is made, the narrative simply keeps going without informing the player how this specific choice affected the storyline. To find out if his decision was satisfactory or not, the player is forced to cheat by peeking at the other available outcomes in every single choice. This is poor game design and even worse game mechanics!

You may ask about the books that have countless dead-end paragraphs. Yes, instant death in a gamebook is, in fact, a form of feedback, but once again, most of the dead-ends lack explanation why the player is being punished.

Well, how about the books that have no instant death paragraphs and everyone gets to the one and only good ending, regardless of the choices they make throughout the game? This is acceptable only in a book that is all about the experience, but these kind of books ARE NOT GAMEBOOKS. They can't be games, because they are missing key game elements.

2. Stat Adjustment: This is the most used forms of feedback in games from across all genres. The sentences "You lose 1 point of your Health Stat." or "You just found a Laser Blaster. Add it to your inventory and keep reading!" represent a very common form of author-reader interraction in gamebooks. Such instructions give a pretty good idea, through gain or loss, if the performance of the reader is good or bad. The author's words don't interrupt the narrative entirely as the instructions feel like a natural part of the story. However, stat adjustment could be deceiving sometimes. It is possible that there was another choice that had more beneficial consequences to the protagonist. If the author voice is stating that "this is a good decision, so add 1 point to your Strength, but keep in mind that the other one was better" is not present, the player could be left with the impression that they made the optimal decision. This problem is avoided entirely when feedback called author interjection is used.

3. Author Interjection: The author's words "This choice was bad because..." are very clear and straightforward. They send an unmistakable message to the reader, which informs him if the performance is desirable or not. Unfortunately, many fans deem this kind of author interjection undesirable due to the fact that it creates a very sudden interruption of the story and prevents the reader from fully immersing in the book. I would argue with them that gamebooks are more games than they are books and it is more important to provide feedback in order to help the player in achieving success than it is to keep the flow of the story uninterrupted. However, I agree that author interjection should be avoided when feedback built into the narrative is possible.

4. Feedback Built into the Narrative: This is the ideal kind of feedback in the gamebook genre, because it doesn't stop the natural flow of the story. Consider this example: "You decide to use a helicopter to get to the monastery. The heavy rain is not ideal for this form of transportation, but while flying over the road that is curving up to the top, you see a big landslide caused by the downpour. You are glad that your choice was the helicopter instead of the jeep". You can already imagine what would have happened had the alternative choice been made. Unfortunately, using feedback built into the narrative is not always possible and its presence in gamebooks is naturally very limited.

Negative feedback is a natural part of any gamebook, but positive feedback is just as important. It is no coincidence that I used an example with the landslide above, which informs the player what would have happened had he made the other choice. Loss of stat points or instant death is very common in gamebooks, but if no information is provided when a good choice is made, the reader is naturally left with the question "what if?". Reassure your readers, as often as possible, that their performance is good and let them know of all the dangers they have managed to avoid! They'll enjoy reading your books, because you make them feel good through positive reinforcement.

And when you tell your readers that they suck, please have the dignity to do it to their face with your own author voice instead of doing it behind their backs through narrative! Once you make a decision to punish your reader by loss of stat points or instant death, the natural flow of the story is already broken. So, please explain in detail how they failed to foresee the possibility of a landslide or they forgot that, back at the village, an orphan boy told them how his father died in the mountains during a heavy downpour. Sure, it's going to make them feel bad anyway, but at the very least, they would feel as the punishment was justified rather than the result of bad luck.

Whatever you do, always make sure to inform the reader when he avoids the danger or why exactly you decided to punish him! This is a form of feedback, which is desperately needed in every gamebook, but sadly, it is a very, very rare jewel.

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"

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Gamebook Theory: Grave Mistake #2 (Level of Difficulty)

I am furious! I recently read some great ideas that turned into very poor gamebooks. Then I read one very bad idea that turned into a great gamebook. Do you know what made the difference? The good book was actually playable and it was possible to achieve success without any cheating.

That being said, the greatest mistake a gamebook author could make is to create a game that is impossible to finish through honest play.

The main downside of a gamebook being too difficult is that reading the same text multiple times is very different than overcoming the same obstacles multiple times in a videogame. Beautiful graphics, moving objects and pleasant sound effects are easily assimilated by our brains. Text is not! In reality, re-reading familiar text is very boring, so when a player has to start over, all the way from the beginning of a gamebook, he is naturally very frustrated. Make him do it more than once and he will either start cheating (forcing the reader to cheat is very undesirable) or he will put the book aside (or even throw it away) to never come back to it again. On top of those two bad outcomes, when the reader finds your name on a book next time, they will simply ignore it.

Unfortunately, besides being the greatest mistake, this is also the most common one. Most the time, authors fall into this trap unconsciously due to their fear of making a game with very low challenge level. Naturally, if you are designing a game, you are most likely creating a new world for it, a new universe with its own distinctive and diverse rules and specifics. Being the mastermind of this new world, you would technically be its Great and Powerful God, who knows it all from the inside out. Therefore, the game is not going to present any real challenge to you when playtesting it. That is the very moment, an author falls into the fear of his game being too easy. That is the very moment, an author starts developing more difficult challenges for his gamebook. That is the very moment, an author loses his readers, because the game was difficult enough to begin with. It was difficult enough, because the reader doesn't know all the rules and insights of the world. As Ashton Saylor pointed out: "a game essentially teaches a skill, then tests that skill". I will add that, if you are an author, it is your sole responsibility to lead your readers hand-in-hand through the learning curve of the game and HELP them achieve success in the adventure. Do not, do not, DO NOT compete with your readers! It would be an unfair competition, because you know your world very well while, at the same time, they are completely clueless about the rules and principles in it.

Beta testers are very important for fine tuning your game. Ideally, we would all have a horde of beta testers by our side, but in reality, we have just one or two of them and they can experience the adventure through fresh eyes only once. On every next attempt, they will be more and more familiar with the rules and challenges of this new world and they would no longer be objective in their evaluations. To prevent this problem, use your testers at a much later stage and do it very, very, VERY wisely!

Testing your own game multiple times is a must, but you have to force yourself to "forget" the rules of your new creation first. You need to choose and know your targeted audience very well in order to be able to get under their skin, so you could test your own game objectively through their point of view. Then and only then, you would be able to adjust the difficulty level to optimal parameters. So, it is very important to first decide if you are going to write for children, teenagers or adults; if you want to write a game for those, who are unfamiliar, somewhat familiar or experts on the subject of the gamebook.

Tin Man Gamebook Adventures are great!
Here are a few rules you could apply to make sure that your gamebook is playable:

1. When in doubt about the difficulty level of your game, always make it a little bit easier, not harder! It is much better to have your readers complain that your book was too easy, while they still feel some satisfaction of successfully reaching the end, than to have your readers complain that it was too difficult. In the latter situation, they probably attempted playing by the rules at least twice and after getting bored by reading the same text over and over again, they started cheating to get all the way through the adventure or never even finished the book. Do I even need to point out that the average person wants to feel good about themselves and forcing them to cheat has the exact opposite effect?

2. Always assume that your readers will fail 40-60% of the challenges. No, I am not sure about the exact percentages, but all of us make mistakes sometimes and not every one of them should be punished severely (read my previous post on instant death in gamebooks!). Use depleting stats (health, mana, energy) or the "God's Forgiveness" rule (roll the dice to save them from a bad choice) to achieve better balance. Once again, it is better for you to create a gamebook that is easier rather than harder. You'll gain more fans that way, because people prefer to hear how great they are doing instead of how much they suck.

3. A satisfying ending of a gamebook must be reachable within maximum of 3 attempts. You know how boring it is to be reading the same text over and over again. Don't ask your readers to do something you wouldn't like doing yourself!

If you follow the advice in this post, you will inevitably receive criticism from hardcore gamebook fans. Keep in mind that most of those fans are okay with the concept of cheating. They justify it by excusing themselves with being experts on the subject, which is supposed to allow them to playtest every single possible choice in the game. Don't worry about them! Nobody can satisfy them. They will never give your game an honest try. Instead, write for your friends and family, who have never opened a gamebook! Write for the new fans of the genre and those of the old fans, who enjoy a good, but honest challenge! Most importantly, write for yourself and for your own satisfaction!

Before I finish, let me clarify that I am not pushing for books that are too easy. I am simply saying that a gamebook should lean toward the easy level of difficulty, while maintaining a good illusion of danger.

Replayability? I'll write on that subject soon.

Until then, may the dice be with you!

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"