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"

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Gamebook Theory: The Grave Mistakes #1 (Instant Death)

The fatal trap we all fall into and How to Cheat Death (in a gamebook adventure)

I never wanted to write a series of posts on what not to do in a gamebook, because there is so much already published on the subject. As you can see from my earlier articles, I am trying to focus on how to do things right. So, to keep true to myself, in the following few posts, I am going to lay down the problems and come up with possible solutions.

Not the worst, but definitely the most common mistake a gamebook author could make is the use of instant death in his/her adventures. Think about it logically for a moment! In a videogame, an instant death is a PUNISHMENT that FORCES the player to start over from the beginning. A gamebook can't force the reader to do that. What it does instead is, it encourages the readers to cheat. Let's be honest for a moment! How many times have you started over after your protagonist was killed? Most of the time (read this as all the time), the reader would simply go back to the previous paragraph and would make a different choice.

See, the great paradox, in the genre of gamebook adventures, is that the punishment of taking away an item or lowering a stat is more significant than the capitol punishment of instant death as the latter brings no consequences at all. Killing the protagonist accomplishes absolutely nothing except killing the enthusiasm of the reader by FORCING him to cheat.

Don't get me wrong! All of us, gamebook authors, feel the urge to kill the protagonist once in a while. I blame that on our need to provide the readers with some meaningful feedback when they make a significant mistake.

However, please note that there are some better ways of forcing negative consequences. The following punishments are not only more meaningful form of feedback, but they also make cheating a little bit more difficult than going back to the previous paragraph.

1. Killing me softly: take stat points away - this is the most commonly used mechanic in gamebooks. It is also the most effective one. Psychologically, it is less painful when health, life or blood points are taken away gradually. Also, going back to the previous paragraph doesn't solve the mistakes made earlier in the adventure. Taking away stat points makes it more likely for your readers to be willing to go all the way back to the beginning, and having already learned from their previous mistakes, they can make better choices at the next attempt. This is also the most consistent mechanic with the brothers of the videogame genre, where multiple lives are given to the players, so they don't have to start over after every single mistake.

2. Emotional Loss: losing an item or a companion - losing something always hurts, especially if you have an emotional attachment to it. Make an item very difficult to get and watch how readers would hate losing it or make a friend character very likable and see how painful it would be to see him/her die or walk away! Sometimes, parting with an item could have more than just emotional consequences. That could make success in the adventure impossible, if the reader doesn't find a way to get it back. A great example of losing a friend is "The Last Fortress" by Ashton Saylor, where your personal guard saves your life at the expense of his own (only once during the adventure).

3. God's Forgiveness: give the reader a way out of his hopeless situation - sometimes, just sometimes, if the mistake is too great, we can't simply take away some item or a few stat points. It would be silly to tell the reader that they have to subtract 5 points from their stamina skill, because they took cover under a tree, which gets hit by a lightning. Similarly, we can't tell the reader that they slipped on ice in the mountain and fell down a few thousand feet, just to lose their weapon during the fall. In situations like those, apply the God's Forgiveness rule and ask your reader to roll the dice. If they get 2-4, the protagonist dies, but if they roll 5-12, the lightning strikes somewhere else or instead of falling to their death, they slip and drop a very important item. The stress invoked by the possibility of instant death communicates a very strong message about unsatisfactory performance, it increases the tension, but it also gives a "get out of jail" card at the same time. You could even allow your readers to re-roll the dice under certain conditions. For an example, give them a blessing stat. It could be increased based on good performance during the adventure (a monk could bless the reader for helping with something) and when a bad dice roll happens, re-rolling could be allowed at the expense of one blessing point. All of a sudden, the chance of instant death decreases tremendously, but the illusion of danger is still there. 

Remember! The paradox is that an instant death is no punishment. The reader simply goes back to the previous paragraph and makes another choice. In result, the protagonist suffers absolutely no consequences and the reader is pretty much forced to cheat.

At the same time, adjusting stat points is a great form of feedback in the genre of gamebook adventures. And most gamebooks suffer from absence of feedback altogether. Adjust the stats during the adventure as much as possible!

Conclusion: It is the author's job to cheat death, so the readers can fully immerse in the story enjoy the adventure.

And finally, don't worry about cheaters! They will always cheat. Our mission as gamebook authors is to save the honest readers from the urge for cheating. The other ones are a lost cause anyway.

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, August 15, 2018

Gamebook Theory: Jump and run simulation in Gamebooks

So, I've been debating with myself (great conversations, by the way) about the topic of my next post for a while now. "Jump and run simulation" seems to be the one that would naturally follow the forms of input I shared with you last time.

I recently published a Gamebook in Bulgarian called "Wimbledon", which puts the reader in the shoes of the Bulgarian tennis star Grigor Dimitrov. The success in the tournament depends entirely on the quality of the reader's decisions on and off the tennis court in a span of 10 years. There are a lot of difficult choices such as going back home for the parent's silver wedding, joining a training camp or flying out on vacation with the girlfriend (that happens to be Maria Sharapova). There are no wrong decisions in the beginning or the middle of the book, just different gains for the one of the protagonist's stats: Sport skills (speed and technique), Energy and Charm.

However, if I wanted to achieve success in giving the reader control over the outcome, there had to be some good vs bad choices at the end of the book. Some of them I created on the grounds of previous shell choice decisions through tactical (strategic) choices. Example: a choice was presented to the reader to decide between using more power or more technique during a match, where the success depends on the points accumulated for that specific skill. Others ones, I tried to implement in the form of multiple choice test, which was based on tennis theory. Unfortunately, something was till missing.

It is nearly impossible to convert a sport match into a written gamebook where we can't test the player's coordination and speed, skills so common for almost all videogames. I brainstormed for a while. I tried to recreate a tennis match situation through the writing rule "show, don't tell" and ask the reader which course of action he'd take. For an example: It is your lucky day and every shot you take lands exactly where you want it to go. Do you shoot for the back line behind your opponent (if you believe that a ball on the line still counts as a point for you) or do you prefer to send the ball safely into the opponent's half (if you believe that a ball on the line is considered out of the field)? And while that this is a valid approach and decision, it is boring as hell and I decided to leave it out.

The answer to that dilemma came to me out of nowhere, while driving my car on the highway two days later: The use of geometry through visual graphs and images. I kept the above question, but I gave it to the reader in the visual form to the right. The text in the book was formulated something like this: "You are just one point away from winning this game. The ball is coming your way and you have to decide quickly where you'd like to send it. If you want to direct to ball to position 1, go to...; If you opt out for 2, go to... and if you'd like to send it to 3, go to..."

I don't think that I have to tell anybody who's ever watched tennis, which one is the correct answer here. Just for the record, making the wrong decision didn't lead to losing the game. Instead, points of Energy were used to win this match. So, the people guessed right, simply saved the Energy for use in later situations.

Similarly to that, there was another choice, much later in the game and therefore a little bit more difficult. I used the graph to the left with the following question: "You are just a point away from winning your game against Rafa Nadal. The ball is coming your way and you know that if you hit it with the exact power required, the win is yours. If we assume that it takes power = 1 for the ball to travel the distance shown as x1 in the graph to the left, how much harder do you think you have to swing the racket to score this point? If you hit the ball twice as hard, go to...; If you swing 3 times as hard, go to...; If you put 4 times more power, go to... If you believe that 5 is the right answer, go to..."

For those of you, who'd like to see the right answer, use the following link: or scan the qr code on the right (yes, I had the QR code option printed in the gamebook).

See how I simulated a very dynamic sport in the form of text and I put it in a gamebook? I think that this was an ingenious decision (I always take pride in being this humble) and I thought that it was worth sharing with the international gamebook community. I hope that this idea would seem progressive and easy to use for the rest of the game designers in the interactive storytelling genre.

As always, there is a downside of using this approach and it is that it requires some basic knowledge in Photoshop. However, I believe that this minor problem is very easy to overcome through some dedication and time spent on the Internet.

I am now in the process of planning a gamebook on the subject of soccer. Something like a gamebook clone of New Star Soccer and I have a very good feeling that it is going to turn out great.

Before I finish, here is another graph I used in the gamebook Wimbledon.

If we assume that the power and therefore the distance traveled would be the same as in shot "X", do you want to chose direction 1, 2 or 3? The answer is here: 

And another one from my gamebook "Area 51":
If we assume that the horizontal laser trajectory equals 0 degrees and the vertical one equals 90 degrees, under what angle do you want to shoot in order to take down the alien spaceship? Write down your best guess on a piece of paper and click here to find out if you succeeded:

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"

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 at
President and Chief Executive Officer of American Limo Naperville
Former Road Captain of Marine One at Operation "Welcome You Home"

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: