Frothing at the mouth

Talking about word-of-mouth in livegames and how it ties into emergent gameplay.

This is a post about froth. Definition time: Froth is what happens when people talk about their experiences at a game or event in an excited, positive manner. Froth is the sign of a good game, or at the very least, a good experience.

Froth is how you win at games you’re not supposed to win at – games like Live-Action Roleplaying and tabletop games, for example, where “winning” isn’t a state of being. Victories and failures are commonplace, obviously, but there’s no permanent, game-ending state of victory. We’ve developed an oral history of what we do because no other journal can really exist and still be accurate.

I think Froth, in part, comes out of Emergent gameplay.

Robbery in progress

Team Fire Hazard, a fellow live-games company, took the first run at the kiosk. Despite good spirit they fared poorly and only stole 3kg of sweets

Emergent gameplay is one of the cornerstones of what I like about games, and what I put into games when I design them, because I am fundamentally lazy. (I design live games, by the way, for folk who don’t know that) Creating massive set-pieces and finely crafting player experiences might work every time – I’m looking at you, Call of Duty, you beautiful bastard – but that’s a lot of work. Especially for someone with next to no budget, a day job, and all that aforementioned laziness.

So rather than building experiences – and the first iteration of Zombie LARP, way before it ever hit full 40-man playtest status, was a scripted horror experience with the possibility of character death – we try to introduce elements that will play together well and mesh into something interesting. It’s lots of work and ideas and scrapped concepts and arguments at the start of the process, rather than lots of effort at the end to keep it all moving.

Emergent gameplay is a tricky beast to define, but it’s – well – it’s basically the opposite of a rollercoaster.

Gobstopper crew

Three of Team Nefarii, including the Gunman (technically a Gunwoman) whose gun kept going off unexpectedly with hilarious results

It’s about player choice and control, breadth of in-game verbs (stuff like “Shoot” and “Hit” and “Run” and “Hide” and “Heal”), and how well those verbs play off one other.* It’s about giving players room to experiment and the opportunity to fail and for that to be okay. Minecraft does it well – so well, in fact, that it allows players to build and ride rollercoasters in-game. It’s when someone has fun using the tools provided in your game, not the fun provided in your game.

They also work better when lots of people take part. It’s hard to develop new ways to play when you’re on your own, but a spare pair of hands can double the impact you can make on a system.

All Live Action Roleplaying Games have emergent gameplay as a matter of course – maybe some don’t, but I’ve not heard of them.** Not all live-games have it – Johann Sebastian Joust, for all that it’s a good game, doesn’t have any because there aren’t enough verbs (Attack, Dodge, and Deceive) unless you start cheating or introducing new elements.*** A sandbox doesn’t make for emergent play, either – the new Batman Arkham titles are devoid of it entirely. As I said, it’s tricky to define. It needs to be designed almost with one eye closed, hoping to spin together elements that don’t feel forced together but mesh well enough to flow.

I carried "Gavin" for about three minutes total

A conman in police officer disguise feigns an injury and neutralises half of the kiosk guards as they help him to safety

The Gobstopper Job is the second live-game I’ve designed, if you count the five years of iterative design by committee that Zombie LARP’s undergone as one game. I was a bit worried that it wouldn’t work properly.

I kind of knew it did work, though, by the way that you could overhear froth in the park surrounding us as the day went on. Hearing froth about your own game is a special kind of ego massage for a game developer, especially if they’re able to move about unseen or unnoticed through a crowd when it happens (and then announce their presence, pseudo-bashfully say “Oh gosh thanks guys” and try and scab a drink off whoever it was that was talking).

The verbs in the Gobstopper Job, a game about stealing sweets from a Kiosk in the middle of a park, are as follows. All players had Run, Sneak and Steal – important tools for a heist. The classes divided up the other verbs with their equipment. The Gun Man could Kill, the Demo Man could Stun, the Con Man could Lie and the Bag Man could Carry.

It was a bit of a crapshoot limited by what words I could represent with limited rules and trying to stay close to traditional heist roles; but they worked, somehow. They fit together well and created something better than the sum of its parts.

The bit that made me happy was that every team approached the objective differently. Some split the party (and failed to get out as many sweets as teams with a properly co-ordinated attack). Some tried stealth, and one team managed to get in and out of the sweet shop without anyone really noticing. Some tried running directly at the kiosk and taking it by brute force. They all, to a greater or lesser extent, worked.

They're supposed to go in the BAG, God's sake

Many of the heists took a proactive attitude to confectionery logistics, meaning that a lot of sweets ended up on the floor

And they frothed. A bit – not the pure, unadulterated heady adrenaline-fuelled rush of Zombie LARP, because we were in a park in the sunshine and the experience lasted 15 minutes, not a terrified, screaming hour – but enough to let me know that the game functioned as a whole unit. They talked about things that happened, and things they did, and rescues and escapes and arrests and how they played in a strange system and came up trumps. This wasn’t a closed experience. There was a lot more that they could have done and still played the same game.

What other things generate froth? Teamwork. Excitement. Intensity. Discussion. All of the above and more. But giving someone the tools to succeed, a fun problem to solve with multiple avenues of approach, and a team to help them out seems to work pretty well.

My next game is called Spook Smashers, and is in no way affiliated with the Ghost Busters franchise. All enemies will wear sheets with holes cut out for eyes. Nothing can go wrong.

*An example: imagine that “Shoot” and “Punch” are the main two verbs. Imagine one game which lets all players Shoot and Punch, and one which forces them to choose one every round. As a team game, the second one is more interesting – in my opinion, anyway. As a single player game, it could get frustrating.

** Murder Mysteries, maybe, fall into this category. And I’m sure there’s some weird Scandinavian LARP where the denial of player choice is the POINT, man, and everyone probably wears grey overalls and it turns out at the end that the game is actually about schizophrenia or something similarly unfun and difficult that living in a country populated with nothing but moose and climbing suicide rates drives you to play just so you can FEEL something

*** The difference between LARPs and live-games is also difficult to describe, but generally LARPs involve taking on a character and roleplaying it to the hilt over a fairly lengthy period of time. Live-games are more laid-back affairs and focus on the game mechanics, not the characters or the story – and generally there’s a winner. I manage to irritate people and lose a fair bit of business by making games that don’t fit neatly into either category.