Sunday, May 27, 2018

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

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Destiny Quest IV: The Raiders of Dune Sea Kickstarter is now live!

Good news everybody! Remember the Destiny Quest series, that awesome epic series where you could become a warrior, mage or rogue and equip yourself with loads of cool gear and get loads of abilities and face massive monsters in great quests? 

Well, there is a fourth book in the works! Wooo! And it's currently live on Kickstarter! Just 25 Euros will bag you one of these doorstoppers which will give you hours upon hours of fun.

And if you need more information, here is an interview with the author himself, Michael J. Ward.

What can you tell us about the Dune Sea? 

It’s big and full of sand.

Sorry, joking aside, it’s a vast region to the south of Valeron (the kingdom where previous books have taken place), which has its own capital, religion and culture. The main hero is a sell-sword who ends up travelling into these desert lands to seek out adventure… and to settle a debt.

With each book in the DestinyQuest series I try and set the story in a different type of environment. Since I began the first book I’ve always wanted to do an adventure that has an Arabian/Egyptian feel – I even allude to the ‘Dune Sea’ of the title in The Legion of Shadow, when you meet the ghostly crusader in Act 1. Having already explored jungles and polar regions, it felt it was high time to take our adventures to sunnier climes – and it fits in well with the story that I wanted to tell. A very big story as it turns out!

Each book in the DestinyQuest series feels as though it has its own tone and feel. The Eye of Winter’s Fury, for example, was quite dark and adult compared to previous ones. How have you approached the latest volume in the series? Does it get darker?

I don’t necessarily set out with the goal of making a book ‘darker’, those decisions sort of arise from the main character and their journey, and also the type of environment that they are in. I think Legion and Heart of Fire were very ‘high fantasy’ and probably had quite a ‘gung-ho’ attitude to the storytelling, whereas Winter’s Fury I felt that the character was on a much more dramatic and introspective journey – obviously his circumstances and condition (which I can’t go into cos, spoilers…) feeds into that. I also had a lot of things going on with my personal life at the time, which I daresay influenced the more sombre tone of the writing. I still think Winter’s Fury is my best writing to date.

I think Book Four certainly has a very adult tone, but I would not necessarily call it ‘dark’. I think this one is set in more violent world – so the attitudes of characters are more blunt and pragmatic. Some might label that as ‘Grim Dark’ and I’m fine with that. But I think the book has not lost its high fantasy elements, although I do think – out of all the books so far – this may be the most grounded in terms of characters and their (often broken) hopes and dreams. I’m very proud of this work, but certainly it’s a gamebook for adults not children.  

As fans of the series will know, no-one is safe in the DestinyQuest world. Can we expect a high death count?

Oh yes, the environments and scenarios in Book Four are pretty brutal. Act One is set around the Badlands, which is kind of a lawless frontier between Valeron and Khitesh. It’s a place where pretty much anything goes, and morality is just a word – not a code to live by. Similarly, the Dune Sea is full of scheming factions that will give no quarter to obtain what they want. You represent someone who must navigate these dangerous tides and decide for yourself who you should side with. It’s quite a massive jump from the early books where choices were relatively simple (and in Legion, some might say lacking entirely!). This is a book about people. And how you interact with those people. You create your own moral code.

Will we meet any returning characters – and what can you tell us about them and their involvement in the hero’s adventure?

This book has many returning characters, mostly from Legion if I’m being honest – and these are characters that will already be well-known to existing fans. But your hero (by in large) will not know them or have any previous interactions with them, so that creates an interesting dynamic. It also throws plenty of surprises into the mix. Obviously I can’t elaborate without spoiling the story.  

Is it helpful/essential to have played previous books?

Not at all. I have to accept that this could be people’s entry book into the series, and I am fine with that and almost encourage it – as I feel the books have improved tenfold with each successive edition. As I mentioned previously, yes there are returning characters – and there will be many things referenced from previous books – but they will not disadvantage a new player in any way, they merely provide depth for those who have read previous books and are committed to the lore.

For the first time in the series, you are splitting a single story/adventure into two books. Was this a difficult decision and what challenges has this presented?

It wasn’t difficult because I really had no choice. I guess this story has been gestating for many years, so I have had time to develop it and think about all the twists and turns, the characters, the nuances. Once I started writing, I did find it tricky to pick a starting point, but once I began developing the Badlands and Act One, I perhaps got a little carried away – and once I hit Act Two I realised that I really did not have the remaining word count and pages to tell the full story, or at least do it justice.

So rather than hack it apart and create something that would be unsatisfactory, both for myself and readers, I decided to just split it across two books, so that I could write the story that I want to tell and not compromise too much. I daresay I will get criticized from some quarters for the decision, but I feel Raiders of Dune Sea still has a beginning, middle and end – and segues quite nicely into the next book.

So, readers will be carrying their hero from the end of this book into the next one? Will they get to keep all of their abilities and items?

Of course. I won’t be pulling any tricks to suddenly rob you of all your hard work. Your character begins the next book with everything that they have gained and achieved. That also means, for the first time, we will be taking heroes to new heights of power – as this will be a four act adventure once the two books are combined.

When writing The Eye of Winter’s Fury, you commented that you found it challenging to work to a two act structure (as opposed to three in the other books). What influenced your decision to have a two act structure in this book?

When I made the decision to split the book, I no longer needed a third map – so the book became focused around the two environments (the Badlands and the Dune Sea). I’ve not found this one such a struggle (as I did with Winter’s Fury), maybe because I have more confidence in knowing exactly where the story and characters are going, so I can sort of fashion the story better to give the right beats and structure.

What is your favourite new feature of Book Four?

Hmm, good question. That depends. From a narrative perspective I would say the choices. I’ve tried to offer much more choice in the quests and adventures, to hopefully throw up interesting dilemmas and challenge readers. Out of all the books, this one probably has the most complex decision trees.

From a gaming point-of-view, I would probably say the new abilities and careers. They are much more focused around distinct styles of play. Everything should feel fresh and new, even when playing around with old abilities and combos. This book kind of brings everything together then multiples it by 100.

When writing previous books you have often mentioned the heartache of having to cut out sections and edit down your work. So far, have there been any parts of this book that you’ve found difficult to let go?

Because of splitting up this story into two books, there has been less stress when it comes to fitting everything in, but even so I have had to constantly pare back on some scenes and decision elements, because otherwise you would just end up with a 1000 page paper weight. Part of my decision to divide up the story was to ensure that I could develop the quests and encounters much more than previous books. I think the average quest in Book Four is probably at least twice the size of those in earlier books. Sure, I always wish I could do more, but you have to be realistic. 

Is this the biggest DestinyQuest book?

I haven’t quite finished the writing yet , but I would put my neck out and say yes – it will be the biggest book in the series. Perhaps not by much (I hope), but it will certainly be pushing it for biggest gamebook ever.

How have you approached the different paths and careers in this book? Are there any unexpected surprises?

I went completely back to basics, stripped back all the paths (warrior, mage and rogue) and set about working out what makes each path unique and different. From there, I then worked out how I wanted the paths to play and developed two key builds for each path; builds that I wanted to fully support with a plethora of abilities. So that starting point completely influenced the development of the abilities.

As I near the end of the writing, I still have to fully playtest the game aspects – and yet I have already seen how there might be other builds and combos that can come out of the existing ability selection. This book, more than ever, will give readers the ‘sand box’ tools to make incredible heroes.

Combat has always been at the heart of each DestinyQuest book. Has it been difficult balancing all these new abilities?

I’ll tell you when I’ve playtested it all!

I always prefer to write a book first, and fill it with placeholder enemies (based on what I think would make a challenging encounter at that level) and stats for items. Once I am happy with the story, then I set aside a heap of time to get into the nitty gritty of playtesting. I’ve had experience of three previous books now, so I have a good sense of what is going to work and what might ‘break’ the game, but you can never tell until you truly get playing.

I’ve made this a difficult one for myself as there are probably more items and abilities in Book Four than any other DQ book, so the combos and possibilities are pretty mind blowing. But then, I think that’s a cool thing – to hand over this over to the fans and be like ‘okay, go for it – show me what you can come up with’. There will always be some crazy build or combo that you could never second guess. I don’t mind that. I just want people to have fun and enjoy the experience.  

Players have often commented that the combats in Book Two and Three are a lot easier than Book One. How do you decide on the difficulty for each book? How will Book Four compare?

Book One I made far too brutal, with long combats that I’d almost describe as a bit of a grind – with a lot of luck required. Since then, I prefer to write and develop combats that are challenging, but you also have the tools to win. They are about strategy and item management, rather than being lessons in patience and torture!

With quest combats, I like to strike the fine line between being fun and also challenging, but not making them roadblocks that could halt an entire reader’s progression through the content. However, with legendary monsters (and the new dungeon delves), you can push the boat out a little and make encounters that are a little more hardcore. They’re optional, so casual players can simply skip them if they find them above their patience or skill levels – but for the dedicated they offer a chance to test out your very best builds and powers, in an effort to gain that extra awesome piece of loot.
This is the first DestinyQuest book to have its own Kickstarter. What can you tell us about the Kickstarter?

The Kickstarter campaign is being run by Megara Entertainment so it is really their thing, although I will obviously be contributing with lots of exciting and informative updates to reveal more about the new book and its exciting features.

There will also be a selection of loot cards available as part of the Kickstarter, which are collectible cards that each feature a special item of loot that is not available in the book. I imagine that Megara will have other surprises in store too – so be sure to check out the project page once it is live.

The Kickstarter will be running from 10 January to 10 February. It would be amazing if gamebook fans could get behind the campaign and pledge their support. I would really love to keep writing these books and finish the story that I began all those years back with The Legion of Shadow. Here’s hoping!

And finally if you could sum up Book Four in just a few words what would they be?

Big. Daring. Choices.

Oh and loot! Lots and lots of loot!

 You can back Destiny Quest book 4 here: