Thursday, July 10, 2008

Giving Great Game Demos

Alex Yeager of Mayfair gave a great seminar at Origins called The 2-2-2 Demo. What follows are my notes. There are several applications:
  • If you regularly introduce your students or colleagues to new games, it helps if you can explain the rules succinctly. This is the direct application.
  • Explaining the rules of a game is no different than teaching any other course material. If you can explain how to play a game, you could use the same basic framework to explain your course material.
  • The process of creating a game demo has similarities to the process of designing an actual game.
  • You'll probably see other parallels as you read on.

What is a "game demo"?

In this particular context, it means a way of introducing someone else to a game they haven't played before. There are many reasons you might want to do this: to simply familiarize them with the game for educational or historical purposes, to get them interested in the game enough to play it, to convince them to buy it, etc.

There are many types of demos, but Alex gave three types: Two-sentence, Two-minute and To-play (hence, "2-2-2").

The Two-Sentence demo

In the game industry, we would call this an "elevator pitch." In just a couple sentences, state the basic theme and goal of the game. The purpose here is not to explain the rules, but to gauge and generate interest. It gives the other person an opportunity to bow out without you wasting ten minutes on a full rules explanation before saying they're not interested. If they are interested, this provides a context for everything that follows.

The Two-Minute demo

Discuss the type/genre of game, general flow of gameplay, win conditions and other important core mechanics. Take the two-sentence demo and add detail. Emphasize the important decisions that players are making.

Again, the purpose here isn't to give the other person everything they need to play, but it makes a full explanation of the rules go much faster if they already have a mental framework to put things in context. The purpose is still to generate enough interest to proceed to a full demo.

The two-minute demo has another purpose. People who have played the game, like it and want to evangelize it can use a version of your two-minute demo when they show the game to their peers. This provides a way for you to "deputize" players so that they can generate interest in the game from their friends, who can all them come back to you. (Think about this. Do you teach any courses where your students are actively recruiting on your behalf for next semester?)

It's worth mentioning that some games do this for you automatically. If a game has neat-looking components that make players go "wow... what's that? Can we play that one?" then you can safely skip the short version and leap into the rules. Not many games have that kind of "curb appeal" but a few do.

The To-Play demo

When game enthusiasts want to demo a game, many of them leap immediately into a full explanation of the rules. For some people (e.g. other hardcore gamers who have already agreed to play) this is fine. Other people (especially non-gamers) may still be tentatively deciding whether they want to play at all, and launching into a full-blown rules description can quickly overwhelm them.

Use this demo to teach the game to people who have already decided to play. They are actively engaged and they've got the time and opportunity. Otherwise, start with something simpler.

The best to-play demos are things you've practiced before. Become intimately familiar with the rules yourself before teaching them, ideally. Think of ways to present the rules so that they're easy to understand, flow well and can be explained in a minimum amount of time.

Personally, I've found that for most board games, the following framework tends to work well:

  • First, state the object of the game, unless it's really obscure or needs other information to be understood. It provides the context for why the player should care about other rules. Frame all other rules in terms of "how can you use this to win?"
  • Then, talk about the progression of play. How do turns work? What can you do on your turn? Start with the things you do most of the time, and just briefly touch on exceptions that only come up once in awhile.
  • Next, mention the game end condition. What causes the game to end, and how (if at all) do players have control over causing the game to end or continue?
  • If you can just set up the game yourself without having to explain initial setup as a series of rules, do so. Otherwise, explain the first part of the game last, after the players already understand the general flow of play and can make intelligent decisions during setup.

Implications for playing games

When explaining games to people who aren't gamers (like friends or family), start with very simple explanations. Don't continue into something more complex until you see the other person's interest, or else you may bore or overwhelm them.

Implications for teaching

Start each course topic with a general "why should I care?" / "why is this cool?" overview, then layer on some basic details and the overall flow of what you're about to learn, and then go into the gory details once you've got the class interested. Once your students see why the stuff you're teaching is important, they'll pay a lot more attention.

Implications for game design

Don't create a game (either digital or non-digital) where your players must understand and master all of the mechanics before they make their first move. Try to create play situations where the player is slowly and gently introduced to new mechanics, allowed to feel through the general flow of the game in a relatively safe environment. Then, add the details once the player is hooked.

Bonus insight: Implications for curriculum design

According to Alex, there's a pattern when introducing Eurogames to kids who are unfamiliar with them:

  • When you teach one game, that's all they want to play. "I played Settlers of Catan before, it was fun, I want to play it again." There are, apparently, no other games worth playing.
  • When you teach a second game, there's a choice: play X or play Y. "We played Carcassonne last time, let's try Settlers again."
  • But when you teach a third game, something magical happens. The players start seeing connections and comparisons that go beyond simple either/or choices. "Let's see... I'm in the mood for a trading/auction game, and Joe says he has to be somewhere in an hour so it can't be more than that, and Sarah hasn't played before and wants something easy to learn... how about Modern Art?"

I think education may work like this in general. Take a Biology 101 class where they force you to memorize all of the structures of the cell, and you assume that the entire field is just memorization. Take Genetics and you might think that the field is part memorization, part math. Take a microbiology course... and suddenly you realize that it's actually a really diverse field, and all those other courses aren't just repeats of the same stuff you've taken already, they're starting with some basic concepts and taking them in a whole new direction, and how cool is that? But only the people in the major get to see this. Implication: the "101" or "Survey" courses, especially those aimed at non-majors or prospective majors, should be designed to expose them to at least three different areas of the field. In these classes, focus less on laying a foundation for the major, and more on the diversity and overarching patterns and common problems that they will see in the field.

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