A Walk in the Dark A look in to the mind of an RPG designer



A New Beginning

Technically this post has nothing to do with D&D. Hope you don't mind.

A short time ago, Sersa V at Save Versus Death announced that he will discontinue support of that which we know as "Fourthcore". I admit I've been in that position before, and I can't blame him for feeling the way he does.

I've mentioned this before, I think... Game design is sometimes a thankless job, and there isn't a worse feeling in the world than looking at that which gave you so much joy and thinking to yourself "this sucks".

For every person that enjoys your creation, you'll always have ten others that will berate it every chance they get. Whether it's because they hate some aspect of it, whether they don't understand it, or even if they just feel like complaining about something... it will not be a pleasant expeirence. When you get a handful of people tell you "man, you're awesome!", you'll get a bucketful of people yelling "man, are you serious? What the hell are you thinking?!?"

As a designer, you are left with a difficult decision. The way I see it, there are three options:

  1. Continue doing what you do in the way that you have been: The critics will continue to complain about it, regardless of whether the points they make have any validity. Ignore them and continue to develop games the way you have been because you want to; it is what brings you joy, and there is no reason to change. If you choose this route, you must be ready to accept that, over time, you may be the only person who plays your own game and the whole world might hate every fiber of your being (I've brought you John Romero before; he actually received death threats after releasing Daikatana), but at least you and you alone will have a good time designing it and a lot of fun playing it.
  2. Change the way you do things in order to adapt to the majority: If you do this, game design is no longer "fun"... it becomes "work". It becomes grueling, tiring, monotonous, depressing, and you yourself begin to hate that which you enjoyed not long ago. This could be compared to "selling out", where someone gives up their principles in order to create something that many more would play just because "more is better".
  3. Do something else: Pack as much as you can in to two suitcases and change your identity. Clean the slate and do something different.

In one way or another, I've been through every one of the above situations...

When The Opera was in development, I was creating the game that I wanted to create. And because I was mostly catering only to myself, the game could never be perfect enough to satisfy my own vision, so I continued to work on it to make it perfect. It took over two years to finish it as a result, but damn was I proud of it when it went gold. When the first version was released, I think that it was on a whopping three servers... compared to over 1,400 Counter-Strike servers. Sometimes I couldn't even find the server sitting on the ground next to my feet in the in-game browser.

For the next version of The Opera, we decided to try and fix all the issues that people had with the game in the hopes that more people will play it. It went from "creating something cool" to "fixing something that's broken". The month before the release of The Opera v1.2 felt longer than the two years leading up to the first release, and it was such a frustrating experience that The Opera R2 never came. We just didn't have it in us, the excitement faded and the group parted ways.

All this was during the time that Counter-Strike was a powerhouse in the mod community. Every product that was released was compared to Counter-Strike, and if it didn't come anywhere near being as good it never saw the light of day. Some brilliant mods for Half-Life were created during that time - Action Half-Life, Firearms, Day of Defeat, The Specialists, Natural Selection, etc... - but under the 800lb gorilla that was Counter-Strike they had no chance of success. Many of the designers sat around wondering "why are we doing this?" when nobody out there even knew they existed, and pretty soon Counter-Strike was the only mod that anyone cared about.

That is the reason I no longer do video game design. It was an uphill battle that I could not win, and that which I had spent years doing was no longer fun... It was grueling, painful and demoralizing. I began to hate it. So I found something else to do; it's still game design, but not video game design. And I'm happy once again (at least for now)!

Now I have another product: The Coming Dark, Chapter One. Honestly, I've been editing the thing over and over again for the past several weeks because it's not up to my expectations (I don't think it will ever be, but that's besides the point). When I release it, I know full well that there are many out there that will consider some of my design choices "wrong", hate some of the things I've done in it, or even burn it in a ritualistic ceremony in the front lawn just because the world must be cleansed of it. I would actually be surprised if anyone ever attempts to run this campaign. Quite frankly, I don't care... I'm creating it because *I* want to, because *I* have to for my own peace of mind. And the day I release it I will begin writing up Chapter Two and Chapter Three. If there is ever a time when I no longer enjoy it, when I feel this is a hardship that drains all the fun I had in creating the campaign, the project ends there. I go do something else, and life goes on.

Fourthcore, at its heart, was a great concept: it was an effort to bring back the golden age of D&D, the kind of game that Gygax envisioned when he created Tomb of Horrors and similar modules. But a lot of people saw it as a subversion of 4e; it was simply "wrong" and had no place in the D&D 4e mechanic. It was something that was seemingly railroaded in to an existing system not meant to support it, a system that seemed to ignore a lot of rules and design guidelines that made 4e what it was (Note: I emphasize the word "seemed" because a lot of critics may not have ever read a Fourthcore module, and are simply basing their wild rants on what they think Fourthcore is due to its description). But being "wrong" isn't necessarily a bad thing; many wonderful things have resulted from someone doing something "wrong". I can think of several billion dollar industries that exist because someone created something "wrong" that had no synergy with its parent product, so they wound up branching it off and doing it on their own. Heck, you could argue that things like vulcanized rubber and microwave ovens exist because someone did something "wrong".

So rather than trying to hammer the round peg in to the square hole, Sersa is moving on to create an entirely new product: "Wrath". This gives him artistic license to do anything he wants, and he won't have to worry about appeasing the screaming critics out there that continue to point out how Fourthcore doesn't "fit" in 4e. "Wrath" doesn't have to be a part of anything else; it stands on its own. For that, I applaud him and wish him the best of luck in this endeavour.

As for the nature of Fourthcore itself, I'm sure it will live on. The concept of Fourthcore is bigger than one person, and I have no doubt many others will continue the tradition and keep the concept alive even if it isn't called "Fourthcore" anymore. For example, I myself am still considering the creating a "GammaCore" module one of these days. Sersa planted the seeds of Fourthcore, but in some ways it has taken roots all its own and will live on in the hearts and minds of its fans.

If you're a designer, any type of designer, odds are you enjoy what you're doing; the thrill of creation is the reason you're doing it in the first place. But there will come a time when you will receive criticism and question whether it's all worth it. When that time comes, don't surrender. Either continue doing what you do because it's what you want to do or leave it all behind and move on the the next big adventure. Never let an outsider dictate what you do to have fun, because when you do it's no longer fun... it's work.

And work sucks...

Filed under: 4e, DnD, Fourthcore, RPG Comments Off
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  1. well said

  2. Very well said. I certainly work to live and *not* live to work. The blog I started has flirted with becoming work, and I definitely do not want that to happen, so I’m scaled back on how much time I devote to it. I want to have fun with it instead of feeling like I “have” to write, etc.

    In my personal life, there was a time when it looked like I was going to land in an academic career – teach a bit, conduct a lot of research and publish articles. I thought it would be a nice lifestyle, but it didn’t work out. I feel like I dodged a major bullet. The research articles I completed and published were time-consuming and I had to go through countless hours of getting crushed by feedback and reviewing and editing and rewriting. By the time I was “finished” with a research article, in some cases it was five years or more after I started the project.

    No thanks!

    I “made my mark” in the field and then went on to other things. I didn’t feel the drive to keeping making a name for myself or whatever. I just want enough stability to live comfortably and enjoy life.

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