Friday, January 13, 2012
Now You (Yes, You!) Can Design Dungeons and Dragons!!!!!!!
Dungeons and Dragons was actually in the news this week. There was even a big article in the New York Times. Turns out, they are going to redesign the game from the ground up.
(Again!?!? Wasn't the last time in 2008? Answer: Yes, it was.)
The impending redesign wasn't the big news item, though. Redesigning D&D isn't news. Happens all the time. What did attract a lot of attention is how they are going to redesign it. They are going to have a “hearts and minds” campaign, ask players what they want in the new edition, and supposedly make it from the ground up while actually taking into account feedback from their fan base.
I assume, of course, that this is all simple marketing-speak, part of a clever and successful way to get attention, and not an actual, realistic plan of action. I assume this because it's the best possible scenario. Actually trying to design a game this way is a terrible, terrible idea.
I've written before about the considerable dangers of relying too much on your fan base to figure out how to design your game. And, as often happens, Penny Arcade did a fantastic job of boiling down what is screwy about this approach.
But I just want to throw out two points.
1. A cacophony of voices will never solve a hard problem.
Whenever you need to make a big, difficult decision about your game design and turn to the public for help, you will get a huge number of responses. They will all be passionate, many will be well-argued, and they will split evenly between all of the possible decisions.
Think about it. If a decision is difficult (and making a game like D&D involves LOTS of tough decisions), it's difficult because there is no clear answer. You could go either way. And people giving you feedback will totally go in any imaginable direction.
The real artistry in game design comes from making all of the possible decisions in a way that they all build towards one unified goal. You want all the decisions to add up to more than the sum of their parts. Some people are really good at doing this. We call them Game Designers.
2. The people giving feedback are not the people you need to listen to.
When you throw open the doors, you will get feedback from the most intense, passionate fans. (Note I didn't say "smart" or "insightful." Some of them will be smart. Some won't. Good luck figuring out which are which.)
But D&D's big problem is not that it lacks a core cadre of passionate fans. It's that any sort of person who doesn't live and breathe this stuff has long ago drifted away. Those are the people you need to hear from. But you won't hear from them. Because they don't care. And you need to know why they don't care, because people who cared once not caring anymore is the heart of the problem.
Of Course, This Doesn't Matter ...
Because people don't put in the long years of work getting a plum position like "Dungeons & Dragons Designer" to then throw up their hands and say, "Hey. Let's see what the forums have to say!" This "hearts and minds" stuff is marketing. It should be marketing. There is nothing wrong with marketing, and making the fans feel involved is a worthwhile goal.
I don't envy them their task. Dungeons & Dragons is one of the great games, and it's had some rough years. Sadly, it's a fair question whether tabletop RPGs will ever be more than a niche of a niche of a niche again, no matter how many times you redesign them. I'll have more to say about this soon.