Four States of Interactivity

As Battletech is actuality a ʻgame-systemʼ, the specifics of playing a game can vary from one to the next, however some aspects remain constant: Players move small figures place to place on a table top adorned with physical or graphical representations of terrain; A quantity of dice rolling is involved; And a profusion of mark making on paper record sheets is required. At minimum the required materials for a small game can fit inside a manilla envelope, but can easily grow to fill a large suitcase or more. Playing the game requires at least a coffee table, but more frequently something dining room sized. While gridded maps can be used and are easily transportable, those who opt for actual terrain will find relocating it to be oftentimes a hassle.
Itʼs easiest to understand the physical aspects of the game by removing them. An online java-based version, Mega-Mek, in its straight forward and utilitarian adaptation maintains the rules and designed game play, but looses the mark making, dice rolling, and figure placement of the original. Each one of these activities, from a strictly utilitarian standpoint, are reflective of the original mediumʼs limitations, their removal allowing players to focus on the playing of the game. While their removal may speed up game play, they provide a certain cognitive understanding of the game at hand. As the individual acts of die rolling, mark making, and moving objects is not a designed aspect of Battletech, but pressed into service for the playing of the game, these qualities can be evaluated in terms of how they enhance or detract from the designed interaction. I find it hard to believe that they could do nothing but detract, and that their removal, as in Mega-Mek, enhances the ʻfeelingʼ of playing Battletech.
From a literal standpoint, the evaluation of physical components of a game is a question of how well these interactions let the user manipulate the elements that have game relevance. In this way the rolling of a pair of die to determine an outcome creates a very literal and direct relationship between the player and the effects on the game, whereas, by using the black box of a computer the player has become spectator, their distance between initiating the event and observing its results has increased. The act of rolling the die though requires more time and effort – even if minimal – in the form of execution and interpretation.
If the physical aspect of the die roll is to be a valuable aspect of the physical interaction, which I believe it is, these aspects need to be value positive, opposed to negative. For these qualities to be valuable, they need to carry meaning beyond being speed bumps in the road between player choice and the feedback. This meaning comes in a number of dramatic, social, and cognitive forms.
The act of rolling is in itself a valuable part of any age old game of chance, where a player attempts to overcome fate or probability though hope and will. The time between the release of the dice and their climactic settling is minor in comparison to everyday life, but an eternity compared to the instant results of a computer. Removing this removes an element of tension inherit in ʻrolling the bonesʼ and removes a small slice of drama from the game. Furthermore, the playerʼs ability to control the pace and order of rolling (individual roles can cary anywhere between game changing and negligible importance) allows them to manipulate this inherit drama.
Battletech is rather fussy and requires pages of tables and look-up charts, against which the results of many die rolls must be compared. The speed at which this is accomplished by a player is an indication of the experience and more or less the skill of the player. While these are stumbling blocks for early players, veteran ones have a great number of them memorized if only through shear repetitive use. Competitively, the control of this ʻcognitive high groundʼ can be used for psychological effects, if not for early assessments your opponents ability.
Furthermore, requiring a user to perform these table look ups as part of game play makes table top Battletech an engine for its own learning. Knowledge of these charts is anything but un-helpful for tactical decision making. With Mega- Mek or any other port that subsumes interpretation, players who are interested in learning these game valuable details are left memorizing by wrote in a context with no game meaning.
The intelectual/cognitive effects of Battletechʼs physical/functional qualities are likely the most important. While a digital version allows for more decision making (by speeding gameplay up), it makes for less informed decision making. Even the act of marking the various forms of damage on a unit is an act of imprinting what happened on a turn. While many of the results may not be game changing, and the act seemingly tedious, knowledge of these details creates a certain closeness with the units if only intellectually. Having this knowledge in the head makes it easier to really fine tune decisions.
Thereʼs also subtle emotional aspects to mark making. The robots in Battletech are decaying machines failing over time in a crunchy, mad max like slugfest where armor is slowly pealed away, stripping internal systems naked, snapping them one at a time. Keeping track of the integrity of each section, crossing armor and systems off by hand after each weapon impact, gives players an almost first hand sense of their machines being torn apart.
While I think the ʻby handʼ note taking is effective for a turn based strategy game, its hardly the epitome of the kind of mechanized violence inherit in Battletech. The dynamic visuals and sound effects of the Mechwarrior and Mechassult series manage to highlight this best, and replace the somewhat detached strategic emphasis of the original with more visceral tactical experience. However, as a turn based game, these basic, by hand, aspects are as appropriate as the come.
Another cognitive aspect about Battletechʼs physical characteristics is one of simple usability and resolution. Paper record sheets offer a high level of information density beyond any computer display, and their physicalness allows for easy intuitive access and quick changes in focus of attention. The board itself, as a physical entity, offers, by definition, the most natural way of viewing the macro/strategic and micro/tactical situation of a game with an immediate level of detail.
Emotionally, the physical field of play – particularly when using miniature terrain over gridded maps – offers a certain aesthetic experience, one of both touch and site. The figures, which are assembled and painted by those playing as part of the meta-game, bring a crafted quality to the table. Each turn a recreation of a small battle diorama; a series of small documentations of imaginary but real-time events.
This meta-game crafting is one small part of the Battletechʼs beyond the object interaction. As mentioned, people have the opportunity to exercise craft, collect, and even customize units in game terms, producing record sheets that are legal for play. As a game system, thereʼs an expanse of customizability, whether in paint jobs, scenarios, or the shape of the playing field itself. All of which can happen independently of other players, or as a collaborative activity outside of strict game play.
On top of the gameʼs customizability, all of it can be done against an expansive science fiction background. From important political figures to small manufactures on backwater planets, players can contextualize their game structuring with endless fluff; This material provided by over 100 novels and scores of additional game books, some of which provide little to no mechanically important game material, but are simply full of fine grain world details. The novels, some of which written by New York Times best selling authors, follow several generations of ruling families from a dozen different states each containing hundreds of planets, on which smaller less grand stories play out, not only add richness to the games, but exist as a standalone cultural artifact, consumable without any knowledge or experience with the game.

Finally and unsurprisingly, the online communities are nothing but expansive. Members of the community always have a showing at conventions where introductory, story- related, and various competition games and events are being run continuously.

This week I present an except from the recent archives. Based on the definitions of interactivity in Rules of Play this paper looked at some of the various forms of interaction, from physical to social, that Battletech provides. I felt that touching on the “drama of the dice roll” seemed a nice foil to some nice scientific perspectives elsewhere.

Read More…

Game Design

Sheets Update : UPDATE

Screen shot 2009-10-20 at 2.03.16 AMFor those who haven’t, take a second to poke at my find-and-print a-record-sheet RIA Sheets. (Hopefully I’ll have my font issues resolved by the time you read this. Issues. Baggage. Suitcase… heh. [any graphic designers out there? oooook.]) Some things are a little lot little crunky at the moment, but in a pinch better than nothing.

There was an odd bug with the flash player and Mac OS 10.5 that was giving me all kinds of trouble when it came to printing. I recently upgraded to Snow Leopard and low and behold troubles gone (and replaced with other ones). So I went back and added some, wait for it, Buttons, which you can click… to print. Yea. Amazing.


Fixed the goofy font problems. Btw. It spits out vector files which actually end up being fairly sizable (~4.5 megs), so if it takes a second, be patient. Let me know if you run into anything.


Star Trek Intonation

intonation_1Last week was midterms. Seeing how I skipped posting monday, here’s some of what had me occupied.


‘Mechs driving pilots.


By Costiyan’s definition, a game token is what you directly manipulate, and by my more elaborate one, the game elements whose behavior is directly dependent on the player’s input. Either way, the relationship between the player and their units in Battletech is interesting.

The piloted unit (for now we’ll just stick to ‘mechs) is obviously a player’s game token. Its physical elements (figure and record sheet) are literally and freely manipulable by the player. In Costikyan terms, the pilot of the unit is a resource – a game element manipulated by use of the token. This is fitting considering the game’s original fiction, where “Life is cheap, Battlemechs are expensive.”

Though the unit-as-token does not have a complete behavioral relationship to the player. Their placement on the field is directly controllable, unless damage or terrain wrests control away from the player. In these instances the unit exhibits independent behavior, the token exhibiting its machine-piloted-by-a-fallible-human character. This character is also exhibited during firing. A player positions the unit in order to make best use of their pilot-as-resource, who, after the weapons and targets are selected, is responsible for the outcome. Luckily for the player there’s a chance for some positive characteristics to shine through (maybe by hitting difficult shots or grouping very tightly).

I’m kinda thinking out loud here, but here are some reflective thoughts on this. Battletech procedurally argues that machines are rather reliable compared to their erratic human counterparts. Pilot performance varies only in its average performance, and all pilots are equally consistent. You’d think that in a combat situation consistency would be just as prized a trait as potential performance (so long as it didn’t make you completely predictable).

It seems a tactical game of Battletech fosters a paternal rather than identity relationship between a player and their pilot-character (even with a detailed character from a rpg based campaign ) ie. The player feels like they are protecting an external persona, rather than acting as a persona.

So what?

Well. Procedurally speaking, the game places the player more in the role of a navigator or co-pilot, or perhaps as a commander, kinda. It seems the game could utilize this more by allowing for more variation in how movement behavior is affected by pilots. Maybe the player picks three potential moves, rates them, and rolls to see which is ‘selected by the pilot’. Perhaps the character-player relation could be improved by allowing the player to make decisions related to pilot focus and concentration.

I’m not really advocating rule changes, or new house rules, just thinking.

Game Design

Old habits die hard.

Last night I introduced my roommate to Battletech. I’ve taught a score of people over the years and am always fascinated by how new players pick up the game, particularly ones with no war gaming experience. There’s always reoccurring habits (like using absolute range opposed to range categories for calculating to hit numbers), but it always strikes me how a first time player on their first move will inevitably begin by rolling their die. This seems like a response completely ingrained by western gaming traditions. I wonder how people who grew up with games outside of monopoly respond to these kinds of situations…