Entry Level Games

edited November 2008 in Story Games
Over in the "Do not become like tabletop RPGs" thread Neil Gow talked about the lack of Entry level games, games that will get new people into the hobby, especially young players who will grow up into the next generation of Story Gamers (or RPGers in general). He suggested that the new Dr Who RPG ought to be the perfect entry level game.

So I was wondering, what should the perfect entry level game be like? When we say Entry level (or suitable for children, which are not the same thing, but can crossover here), what do we mean? Are we talking about simple (or simplified) mechanics? Are we talking about the type of setting? Are we talking about play attitude? Are we talking about things that mix tabletop RP with more familiar styles of gaming (e.g. D&D boxed set board games, or CCGs with added RP, or RP with dolls or whatever), to draw people in?

Who is the market for such games? Are we aiming at small children? At early-teens? At teenagers? At families (with the parents and children playing together, such as with the Princess Game?), at young adults?

I don't have good answers for these. My own experiences tell me that an "Entry Level" game is D&D 2nd Edition, and it's aimed at teenagers and it *does not* involve parents, and the subject matter is fantasy and bashing ... but them I am part of a previous wave of new gamers, not the current one, and what was right to get me into gaming might not be right now.

So what do people think the ideal Entry / Introductory / Hobby Starting / Child friendly game should be, and have you seen it already? What games approach your ideal?

Comments

  • The best entry-level gaming environments I've seen have been thus more because of the keen understanding displayed by the social leaders (GMs, etc.), not because of the games themselves so much. So making a good entry-level game seems to depend on bottling that GM mojo.

    On the other hand, that sort of entry into the hobby seems to be dependent on having somebody introduce you into it, instead of a cargo cult situation. Is the cargo cult somehow preferable? That's how I learned roleplaying, and the game certainly needs to be quite different if the assumption is that preteen or teenager boys are going to be playing by themselves rather than having some ultra-experienced GM figure controlling the experience.

    Are those teenager boys even the best target audience, even if they've historically been the best audience for rpgs (aside from college-age wargamers, that is)?

    Many questions, and probably many answers as well, depending what sort of assumptions one decides to start with. The foremost wisdom on this is likely not that there is some incredible right answer, but that the answer you choose as a publisher and culture activist depends on your own interests, means and social situation. I can imagine selling rpgs to many, many different target audiences, and success won't depend on picking the right one, but creating a product that works for that specific audience.

    In other words: There is no perfect entry game.
  • RyRy
    edited November 2008
    I remember sitting in a basement with some Magic cards, talking with my brother or some of my friends about how this or that army would beat the other one, and I was talking about how awesome the battle would be, describing the evil sorcerers of Black against the druids of Green, both trying to bargain to get Red on their side. I think tapping into that imaginative interaction with art and delivering game quickly would be key.
  • As for what approaches the ideal: I see pieces of it around. Red Box Hack's movement and damage system, TSoY's Keys, Succinct Feats/Powers/Secrets, simple randomizers like 2d6, Magic: the Gathering cards, IAWA's setup phase.
  • Here's a thought.

    An entry-level game for teens is a very, very different thing than an entry-level game for children.

    Children need structured games, with clear rules. They want to see their hero win. They may need adult guidance. Solo gamebooks are great for children, for example.

    Teens are ready to step out into the world of adults, as they see it. They want to achieve things, to control the incomprehensible, to experiment with and reshape their lives and identities. They are often driven by dreams they can't express, and want something to fulfill those dreams. They often want nothing to do with adult guidance, except perhaps to have someone teach them the basic rules of the game - but even then, they'd much rather go to an older kid than to someone of their parents' age. They want adult themes, as they see them: Dark, evil magic; the potential of sex (but not real sex just yet - they just need to explore the idea that people are sexual creatures); dreams of romance (but not real relationships with all their hassle). They want to uncover their inner powers (like the gifts of the Elfquest elves, or the powers of werewolves and vampires). They want a world of complex social structures, so they can gain competence and power in those structures. They If a game can promise them all that, they will buy it and learn it.
  • edited November 2008
    For most people (including kids) D&D is an the "entry level game", so I approach the entire subject with deep suspicion. My guess is that social context and individual skill and motivation are far, far more important than a specific set of rules.
  • I think that the search for a "entry game" in the sense of "a game that will explain what rpgs are, in general, and will turn people who play it in rabid collectors of games and supplements" is a fool's errand. Nobody ever could explain what all rpgs are to a single person, and people want a game that will be able to explain it to every single possible reader? I think that this misguided hope is a consequence of the old idea that rpgs are a single hobby, and its name is D&D. In that sense, the entry game for this "hobby" is, simply, D&D.

    I think that a true, real "Entry Game" is simply a game able to explain ITSELF, how to play it, to a reader that never, ever played another rpg.

    It's not an easy task (even Dogs in the Vineyard, in my opinion the best-written rpg ever, would fail in this because is written for a reader who already played "traditional" rpgs), but some game already do this. We already have some of these "entry games".

    I would suggest, for example, that Spione is already one of these. It's not a game that explain what rpgs are (it's not really a rpg, to be exact, but it could be called a story-game), but it's a game that is completely self-sufficient: it doesn't require any previous knowledge of any other.

    What other game texts do you think are able to explain how they have to be played, without referencing any other game knowledge? I would be interested in a list...
  • A couple of thoughts:

    -While more games for children would, indeed, be awesome, "beginners" come in any age and something that's designed with, for example, kids or teenagers would probably be a massive turnoff for a mid-30s guy looking into games besides poker he could use to spend time with his buddies.[/cliché] Here, broading the hobby as a whole would most likely work better then trying to design the "perfect entry level game". Look over at board games: There's one perfect entry level game, there are a bazillion of entry level games, so there's a good chance that somebody interested in board games would find something he likes. Which brings me to the next thing:

    -While most people probably start with D&D, that doesn't mean it's the perfect entry level game, or even a good one. It might be, for the people that try it and stay with gaming, but that tells us nothing about the people that try it and don't stay or that never heard of it in the first place. To stay with the board game analogy, it's a bit like Monopoly or Mensch ärgere dich nicht. At least for most austrians my age, their first board game was either Monopoly, Mensch ärgere dich nicht or DKT, but doesn't mean that these are the perfect starter games for somebody looking into board games. They might be, or they might simply be the most common games out there and thus the ones most people encounter.

    -Personally, I still think the biggest problem of rpgs-as-we-know-them (as opposed to more general make-believe or something like CRPGs) is social footprint. While the games themselves are often really fucking cheap compared to both the products they deliver, other game products and the ammount of fun one can get out of a single book, the amount of time and energy needed to get that fun is enourmous in comparison. Whether it's learning the rules, getting a bunch of people together or doing the creative work of making up the various fictional components (campaigns, adventures, characters, settings, ...) makes the "cost" of rpg skyrocket.

    Now, some here might well say "But what you call "work" is actually fun and awesome" and I'd actually, for many parts, agree. But we are not the target audience here. We have already been infected by the rpgs-as-we-know-them and we have already spent years internalizing this work, developed tools to make this work easier and more fun for us and so on. Or maybe we are just the kinds of people that enjoy this kind of stuff. Either way, the target audience of an entry level game doesn't have that background and the advantages that come with it. And that's where an entry level game would have to hook into: By bringing down the social footprint of rpgs. Make them playable and fun with less people, make it faster to design adventures and characters, build a structure that makes it less necessary that everybody is there every session and so on.

    Now, whether it's prossible to do that enough to make it able to compete with other kinds of games out there and still make it an rpg-as-we-know-it is something that remains to be seen. I think it's possible, but then I know many people have a much narrower definition of "rpg". *shrug*
  • OK, I'll throw in a thought or two, as a demoer of a variety of games over the years:

    I'd first say that a good entry-level game is NOT age-, sex-, or demographic-specific. Take the card game Fluxx--it's WAY different from any standard card game, and yet I can teach it in minutes and most first-time players want to go again and again. Ditto Zendo: it's a basic logic game (think Apples and Oranges or This But Not That) that can be taught, in a basic form, in minutes and which has an advanced form that folks easily pick up once they get a few games of the simpler one under their belt.

    So we want an RPG with that characteristic, too: broad demographic appeal (by NOT being targeted to one demographic category), fast to learn, with scalable complexity.

    Next, I'd point out that the ideal setting for entry-level is NOT fantasy or sci fi or any other genre fiction. Sure, some games are generic and can fit into any setting--some have the players build that setting as they go--but most games are genre-bound and, as such, already cull a large percentage of potential players. But the annoying flip side is that many generic games don't clearly establish procedures for building setting or require a lot of up-front work to get a coherent setting, and so they leave new players floundering just to start. PTA might be the one clear example of something generic that nevertheless is easy to get folks to whip up a setting and starting situation and GO. IAWA works for this as well, mainly through the variety of available Oracles (but by the book, maybe not so much).

    So we ideally would find a genre with broad-base appeal (spy, romance, historical) or build a setting-generator system that's super slick and easy to learn.

    Further, I'd say an entry-level system needs to have fewer points of contact, and those points should have a VERY clear structure as to what happens when you manipulate them--how they impact other system elements. This means, for example, avoiding figured and derived stats, minimizing the number of strategic options at each decision gate (while still having a variety of them, based on the specifics of the decision gate), and making the relative efficacy of various "build choices" (character stuff) clear and obvious.

    So we want a game that provides a variety of options, but narrows those options on a case-by-case basis, and which makes the reward cycle as obvious as possible, and its rewards meaty and tangible.

    As a final note, there's a tough call (for me) with regards to character and stance: part of me thinks that a good entry-level game will have one character per player, to help them get into the acting and to imagine what they do and when. Another part of me recalls that most "let's pretend" from my youth involved a more shared agency, often with multiple characters per player (sometimes even switching hands), and much more Director (or Author) stance than Actor. So I'm admittedly hung: go with what seems to be "natural" shared authority play; or go with what is often a core concept of RPGS, individual characters with high autonomy and personal authority (e.g. veto power).

    Will a game which has all three (or four, if resolvable) elements above be the "perfect" intro game to RPG hobby, in the sense that it will appeal to any and all? No. But I think it would go a long way towards "de-nichifying" the hobby, by drawing on new player's existing interests (genre), experiences (system), and presumptions of how a story is told (authority).
  • edited November 2008
    The gents at Pulp Gamer had some thoughts about this in a recent podcast (the segment starts a little ways in. Edit: Okay, a long ways. Start at about the 17 minute mark.)
  • Hi!
    OK, I have a few thoughts on this:
    1) I don't think the game complexity is a deal breaker. If you look at Texas Hold em, it has a fairly complex set of rules,. but it has reached national exposure. I do think that the game play has to be tight, but it doesn't have to be dumbed down for the noobs. People can tell when you are dumbing it down for them and they usually react negatively.
    2) Genre - I think Dave hit the nail on the head, you need to make it a genre game, but it has to be a popular genre that people grasp the conventions of easily. PTA is a good example of this. I have had good luck introducing people to games with popular genres, but less so with genres the player is unfamiliar with.
    3) Time - I think that a lot of the newer games coming out have grokked the4 fact that the era of marathon, 12-hour sessions is a thing of the past and players need a game where meaningful progress can be made in around 2 hours.
    4) Commitment - Again, newer games have figured out that you need a lower commitment to start and continued commitment to advance the game. I am not sure if this is true for all successful mass media products, but that seems to be the case.
    Dave M
  • Posted By: DInDenver3) Time - I think that a lot of the newer games coming out have grokked the4 fact that the era of marathon, 12-hour sessions is a thing of the past and players need a game where meaningful progress can be made in around 2 hours.
    12 Hour sessions are still fine (even positive) for high school and college age gamers. It's the geezers with kids that it doesn't work for.
  • Bob,
    OK, I am not trying to say its impossible or shouldn't be done.
    But, I am trying to say that your average person who is not already a gamer probably does not have another activity in their life that has that sort of expectation of their time. You don't have to dedicate a 12 hour block of time to go to a movie. If you were designing a game that had a similar sort of appeal, I would think that lowering the required time commitment to a 2-3 hour block would increase its favorability amongst a non-gamer demographic.
    So, for instance, how many non-gamers do you know that have sat through all 3 LOTR trilogy movies in one sitting? This requires very little commitment except to have access to the movies and a good sized block of free time (8-9 hours). I am certain that many people have done it, but if you take out the portion that are already RPG gamers, how many are left?
    Dave M
  • Posted By: DInDenver
    3) Time - I think that a lot of the newer games coming out have grokked the4 fact that the era of marathon, 12-hour sessions is a thing of the past and players need a game where meaningful progress can be made in around 2 hours.
    4) Commitment - Again, newer games have figured out that you need a lower commitment to start and continued commitment to advance the game. I am not sure if this is true for all successful mass media products, but that seems to be the case.
    And yet World of Warcraft gamers will happily play 6 hours a night every night ... even though they won't touch a tabletop RPG, so this is not an absolute either.
  • Dave,
    Well, I have played a few MMOs and I can tell you that the only way they are able to get the numbers of subscribers they are shooting for is to lower the barrier to play. WoW does it by setting up the vast majority of the content to work in small blocks (many of the quests only require 30 minutes to get a decent reward). Now, this game does use the sort of "gambler's high" to keep people playing through multiple quests. But, that is the point, the commitment needed is low.
    And I think that is our target for a mass appeal game. Low barrier to entry, but some sort of rewarding experience for advancing your play skills.
    Dave M
  • I can totally get behind the idea that when we talk of the ideal Entry Game we don't mean *one game* but a style of games. The perfect entry game for 10 year old girls is never going to be the perfect entry game for 18 year old boys, but there ought to be common factors that apply to both. Looking at the suggestions above I think I can see common factors
    • A clear an attractive genre with appeal to the audience (not a niche one)
    • Easy to state "what you do in this game" (yes Texas hold 'em has complexity, but the basics are easy to explain)
    • Simple rules that don't need any prior experience with RPGs to understand
    • Gameplay that has clear choices, without being overwhelmingly complex
    • Tactical depth?
    To me maybe the most vital thing there is the "What you do in this game", people have exposure to things like poker that gives them a mental image, and they find it easy to understand because of that. My experience of many years of trying to get new people to join RPG clubs at student fairs tells me that (along with "Isn't that geeky") the biggest question is always "But what do you *do?" because people don't have that mental image.
  • edited November 2008
    Posted By: DInDenverDave,
    Well, I have played a few MMOs and I can tell you that the only way they are able to get the numbers of subscribers they are shooting for is to lower the barrier to play. WoW does it by setting up the vast majority of the content to work in small blocks (many of the quests only require 30 minutes to get a decent reward). Now, this game does use the sort of "gambler's high" to keep people playing through multiple quests. But, that is the point, the commitment needed is low.
    And I think that is our target for a mass appeal game. Low barrier to entry, but some sort of rewarding experience for advancing your play skills.
    Dave M
    Exactly. While many/most MMO gamers will have no problem spending hours and hours playing the game, it's not necessary and the actual pre-game "preparation" is generally less then half an hour, complete with installation and character generation.

    It's a question of "Time spent before the fun begins" and not "Total time spent".
  • The other thing: Difference between scheduling a few hours of your own time and a few hours with other like-minded folk.
  • I've actually been kind of befuddled by the whole WoW thing. I always thought it was like, "turn on your computer, log on, have fun for a while, turn it off when you're bored or need to do something else". The appeal of that is easy to see.

    But the (admittedly few) people I know who play WoW play it on a rigid schedule, twice a week, with the same "crew" (whatever they're called in WoW), at regularly scheduled times and durations. Like, "Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 7:00 to 12:00. And it's pretty hardcore non-negotiable.

    They were trying to organize a one-shot with me, but it was difficult because they "didn't have very much free time for gaming".

    So, I don't really get it.
  • Paul,
    Crews are called Guilds
    There are some activities that require a significant commitment of time and in game resources, these are Dungeons and Raids. Typically, that is the majority of the content when you hit level 65 or higher. Having participated in them, I can tell you that you have to be hardcore to herd all those cats and successful guild enforce harsh penalties for people who do not support the guild during raids and dungeons. This is out of necessity. The high end loot is rare and requires a significant effort. So if 9 people show up for a 10-man raid, and the tenth guy is a needed role like a healer, the whole thing is ruined. but, the game doesn't get like this until you are deep in (in fact, this level of commitment is not REQUIRED before level 70).
    Dave M
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