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  • Student Postmortem: SCADís Rats

    - David McDonough
  •  Rats was created as a course project for Prof. Brenda Brathwaite's Game Design Criticism and Analysis class at Savannah College of Art and Design. Working in teams of four, the students were tasked with creating a finished board game prototype based on an aesthetic, in reference to the "mechanics-dynamics-aesthetics" design framework. To be "finished," the prototype needed to be iterated and play tested until it was balanced and consistently fun; no other restrictions existed on the type of board game permissible or the kinds of mechanics allowed.

    Innovation was, as ever, our watchword. Our primary objective was to explore the design process from the mechanics-dynamics-aesthetics perspective and test our mettle as creative thinkers.

    Our group identified a number of aesthetics and debated the merits of each. "Paranoia" and "guilt" were the favorites, but the latter was ultimately abandoned because we felt a negative emotional response would not encourage player enthusiasm, and because guilt was too subjective to be reliably modeled in a formal system. We chose "paranoia" and set to work trying to clarify the term and its application to game design.

    We defined 10 situations that we felt fostered or were symptomatic of paranoia:

    1. being followed­
    2. being watched­ ­­­
    3. unknown motivations of others­ -- being unsure of the motivations of others and unable to confidently deduce such from observing their behavior
    4. perceived hostile environment -- feeling powerless to stop or control environmental threats
    5. out-of-character behavior­ -- ­­­­­perceived inconsistent or irrational behavior in others
    6. stereotype perception ­-- making decisions or judgments based on flawed understanding informed by stereotypes
    7. involuntary Isolation -- feeling cut off from vital relationships and information and powerless to restore these connections
    8. inability to protect valuable assets
    9. guilt or remorse
    10. perceived violation of privacy.

    After further discussion, we selected from the list the ideas that we believed would best serve a formal system. Our particular favorites were "unknown motivations of others," "out-of-character behavior," and "inability to protect vital assets." We grouped these ideas into a "not enough information" umbrella term to use as the game's core.

    With that defined, we forged ahead, developing, testing, and iterating numerous mechanics, and slowly hammering out a cohesive system. Almost immediately, we hit a snag, and then another, and another. In fact, the failures and challenges we faced virtually defined the project. In deference to that experience, this postmortem will present events in the order in which they occurred: troubles first, success second.

    What Went Wrong
    1. Plenty of false starts. At first, progress was slow and unreliable. Our earliest game models were hampered by a lack of common vision over the style or genre of play. We imagined games that were similar to Clue or Risk, as well as variations on classic card games and well-known tabletop RPGs, such as Greg Costikyan's aptly-named Paranoia.

    Our first playable prototype was a variation on the basic gameplay of Clue, but took place in a middle school gymnasium. Players traveled around the board during a school dance attempting to play pranks and pin them on their opponents without getting caught by the vice principal. We imagined a system in which players traveled across seven zones, laying down prank cards in each zone. After a randomly generated round length, all cards on all zones would be simultaneously revealed, and whichever player was present in the zone would be pinned for the pranks accumulated there. This idea ultimately failed because, since each player travels more or less randomly, it was impossible for players to specifically target each other and thus impossible to form suspicions about who might be targeting whom. Without this suspicion, paranoia was not possible.

    We iterated on this idea to form a system in which players moved from zone to zone via a simultaneous reveal of destination choice, still to play pranks wherever they travel. Getting caught would be handled by a vice principal token that traveled around the zones, revealing the cards and catching the players on whichever zone he landed. His movement would be driven by a draw from a shuffled deck of "destination" cards, but players would have the opportunity to peek at and rearrange this deck, enabling them to "path" the vice principal to zones of their choice and catch other players they were targeting. This, too, failed when it became clear that it did not solve the problem of unpredictable player movement. Additionally, neither of these systems had well-defined goals or win conditions, and no suitable suggestion ever emerged.

    As one idea after another went down in flames, we gradually uncovered the source of our failure: the concept of paranoia, rather than fear.


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