Interview Oct 5, 2013

Today’s special guest is Gregory Carslaw of 3D Total Games. Greg is the designer of 404: Law Not Found which is on Kickstarter for just a few more days.

GDC: Give us an overview of your game and how it’s played.

Greg: Sure. You start out by randomising where your robot starts and what special ability you’ve been upgraded with. It could be anything from the power to destroy to the power to spontaneously create bananas. Sadly the upgrades cost you your human-friendly laws so you cobble together replacements by drafting a set of directives. It’s best to aim for get ones that vaguely fit together or that your opponents are likely to half-complete for you if they do the directives that you rejected. The winner is the first player to complete all of their directives or the player who’s completed the directives with the highest difficulty ratings if the mission ends first.

Each turn an event threatens the ship, such as an enemy or meteor. Then the human crew leap into action trying to save the day, but they’ve become dependent on robots and are wildly incompetent. They follow a predictable pattern of actions so that you can manipulate them into completing your directives. Following that the monkey takes a turn, hunting around the ship for bananas, leaving airlocks open and stealing items as it goes. Those things only take a couple of minutes before you’re into the bulk of the turn: The robot’s actions! Your superior metal bodies allow you to take three actions each with no chance of failure, the drawback being that you need to decide all three before you start moving and you all make your decisions simultaneously. If you get pushed off course and load the monkey into the cannon rather than the cage then it’s already too late to change your “activate machine” action. Once you’ve had your turn the event resolves, usually damaging the ship in some way if the correct machine wasn’t activated (e.g. using engines to dodge meteors.)

If there’s another event in the stack the game continues, otherwise the mission is over and someone has won. The game works because the directives prescribe situations “A meteor is dodged” rather than actions “You dodge a meteor” and there is more than one way to complete most of them. An engine could be loaded properly (with fuel, which works), improperly (with cloning jelly, which fortunately burns hot enough) or really improperly (with a missile, which will dodge the meteor, but isn’t even slightly good for the engines.) Your opponents will try to thwart you and have some idea what you’re up to since they know what they passed to you in the draft, but can’t be entirely sure since the rejected directives were discarded face down.

GDC: What innovative mechanic or creative idea distinguishes your game from others?

Greg: I think a game is more like a meal, it’s the unique combinations of ingredients that make it work. 404 combines elements that are not commonly seen together: Hidden Objectives and Objective Drafting. Humour and Meaningful Player Decisions. Action Programming and Cardboard AI. The elements emphasise each other’s best qualities and make 404 a gaming experience like no other. It perplexed me for a time, I think it’s a very human reaction to look for the one golden inspiration that makes something brilliant, sometimes I almost wanted to shake players and demand “But why are you having so much fun!?!” before I realised that it wasn’t a single thing. It’s about doing lots of things well and integrating them so that the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

GDC: Tell us about the spark or inspiration for this game.

Greg: 404 is born of a wide variety of inspirations, from books, film, study and of course other games. I’ve mentioned that a few times though and anyone following the progress of the game must be getting sick of reading it, so let’s talk about one particular inspiration: Space Station 13.

Space Station 13 is an amazing multiplayer game, unfortunately shackled to the somewhat dated Byond client and being simultaneously developed in different directions by a dozen different teams. You play as the crew of a space station and need to deal with something, a traitor, an alien infestation, a rogue AI, you don’t know until things start going wrong. The game has an amazing level of interaction in it, you can pull apart practically anything you can find and build it elsewhere if you feel like it. One of the players can be the AI, in which case they don’t get a body, but can see anywhere on the ship and can remote control all of the technology. They have the three laws at the start of each round and generally try to look after the crew. There’s an AI core that an enterprising player can use to reprogram the AI. Some of the most enjoyable rounds I’ve played have been when people have subverted the AI in various ways, watching a player abide a different set of laws (or just uploading something like “Talk like a pirate”) is great fun.

The laws can also be randomised, by Ion storms and the like, in which case some process creates laws for the AI like “security must wear red.” Which sounds like it should be fun, but the system generates laws that are too random. “Monkey will tablet toolkits” is quite hard to follow. One of the things ticking along in my head when I wrote 404 was an idea about how to script a different means for generating random laws that would create more interesting game effects when they occurred.

One of the best moments of a playtest when introducing new groups to 404 is the way that they react to the directives, so I think that inspiration made a big difference

GDC: Let’s talk about the design process. Tell us a bit about the iterations the game has gone through and the refinements you’ve made along the way.

Greg: Loads has changed since the first version of the game! I’m not sure where to start.

One of the most noticeable things is that the humans became less and less competent as time went on. Initially they were specialised to certain roles (fighting enemies, performing missions or repairing damage) and had a relatively complicated AI that allowed them to move around the ship towards problems and fix them with great ability. Playtesting revealed two things: Testers enjoyed the game more when the humans made mistakes and testers didn’t enjoy having to work their way through a really complicated AI. Over several iterations the AI became simpler and simpler, making it quicker and quicker to execute and providing more moments of human incompetence for the robots to clear up.

As things stand if two soldiers are in weaponry and run out of ammo they’ll squabble to load each other into the launch tube and fire at the enemy.

Another important change is in the directives. Initially you drew three at random and had to complete those, which lead to unfair games in which some players had things much easier than others. I tried making them roughly equivalent in difficulty, but it killed off some of the fun of the game because some of the really cool things that players enjoy doing stopped being viable directives by being too easy or too hard. Eventually I hit onto the idea of drafting directives, which produced a much fairer game as experienced players would wind up with directives of roughly equivalent difficulty. It also put control back in the hands of a player, which was a big thing for me. Thinking “I should’ve picked that directive” is more powerful than thinking “I wish I’d drawn that directive”, it lets a player improve their play in future games and makes the outcome more focused on player ability than luck.

Novice players had some trouble so I added difficulty numbers to the directives to guide them towards better choices during the draft and started using them for tiebreakers (the previous tiebreaker was down to how long ago the directives had been completed) which further helped with the balance issue. Now the game feels pretty well balanced but I still get to keep all of the wierd and whacky directives that gave the game its character.

GDC: What has been your biggest challenge in designing this game?

Greg: I find that the hardest parts have been where I’ve had to stop working on it! It’s not always been easy, but it was always a joy to work on the project and try all sorts of cool different things to get it to work. The toughest parts were needing to stop because I was waiting for playtesters to become available or because I’d asked for some new graphics work five minutes ago and it wasn’t reasonable to expect it to be finished yet or for reasons like that.

GDC: Let’s shift gears and talk about you. How did you get into game design?

Greg: It’s something that I’ve always enjoyed doing and that I’d done casually as a hobby while working on other things. When I finished my PhD I knew that I needed at least a little break from academia, so I decided to see what options I had. It just so happened that 3DTotal was advertising for a game designer so I applied and before I knew it I had the opportunity to work on game design issues full time.

GDC: What is your greatest moment as a game designer?

Greg: I think the best I’ve felt about it so far was getting the message that two of my friends wanted me to change some of their wedding vows into an error code and hide them inside the 404 booklet. I got very emotional ;)

GDC: Tell us a little bit about your life outside of game design and gaming: family? work? other interests?

Greg: Well I’m working on game design full time, I spend 9-5 working on various games projects – though obviously the 404 Kickstarter is taking up the bulk of my time these days. I find that exhausting enough that it doesn’t leave time for another job alongside it! I live with a couple of friends who I’ve known for a long while, we all play games so when we moved in we decided that we’d rather have a games room than a dining room and it’s stayed that way, which is pretty good. I used to be a bit more active and do fencing, wing chun, and rock climbing, but I had a spinal injury a few years ago and the doctors say I shouldn’t go back to them (generally I feel fine and am pretty sure I could do them, but I try to listen to medical advice.) I still do LARP though, since it’s not so big on explosive movements and the contact is somewhat lessened. Every now and again I let someone trick me into looking at research again, actually the longer I’m away from the university the more interesting and enticing it all looks. Maybe I should do some research again ;)

GDC: Do you have any works-in-progress or game ideas you would like to share?

Greg: Before I started on 404 I was working on another game that’s working title is ‘Wizard Academy’ which is a cooperative game in which you play as a group of wizards who have been left in charge of the academy when something terrible happens. Unfortunately none of you know anything about magic, for various reasons (one is there to steal magic items, one is only interested in plants, one accidently turned herself into a bear, etc.) so you need to experiment to work out how things work. The spell book is randomised at the start of each game, so the combination that was “heal” in the last game might be “set fire to the room” in this game. As with all cooperative games it’s a race against time, but in this case it’s trying to master this games spell book quickly enough to stop all of the disasters you caused by experimenting with the spell book from ruining everything forever.

It’s actually nearly complete and I should be looking at getting it out there early next year.

GDC: What games have you been playing lately? What have you liked, what have you disliked, and why?

Greg: I got a copy of Risk: Legacy for my birthday and have been steadily playing through it. The idea of a game that evolves over repeat plays and that is permanently altered in play is really neat, I’ve enjoyed the way it’s gone an awful lot! I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, but it’s a treat and does an awful lot to improve upon the problems that are associated with Risk, I think anyone who’s interested in games should give it a try!

GDC: Share your favorite game you haven’t designed and why?

Greg: Probably Space Alert. I enjoy cooperative games, I enjoy chaos and I like the challenge of thinking clearly under pressure. The persistent experience thing is pretty neat too, it’s nice to have a record of all of the crazy stuff you’ve got up to. I haven’t played in a little while actually, I should definitely give that another whirl! I think it was more fun when I wasn’t the most experienced player though, that thrill of discovery and of finding awesome moves has started to feel a little deadened (but I am almost 100 games in, which I think is more play than any other game I own has had.)

GDC: A word of advice to your fellow game designers?

Greg: The measure of a game designer is not how often they turn out to be wrong about something, but how gracefully they recover when it happens.

GDC: Anyone you’d like to give a shout out to? (playtesters, design mentors, your friendly local game store, etc.)

Greg: Too many people! Thanks to Tom for giving me a chance, Emalee and Matt for all of their help with the project, all of my playtesters (but especially Richard Hesketh for constant help & trying every generation of the game that was publically playtested and Ed Kirby for so often stepping into the shoes of missing players at the last minute), Andy for being such a great help with the video, everyone who agreed to review the game (especially those who had difficult life stuff going on at the time.) … it’s a huge list! I’m going to stop there while I can still think of more names because I’d rather leave a partial list than try to be exhaustive and miss an individual.

GDC: Tell us how (and where) we can find you (social networks, BGG username, website, cons you plan to attend).

—me in general—
BGG Mirror of blog:

—404 in particular—


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