Middleware: Design Notes

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Instructions ♦ Design Notes ♦ Reflective Essay

Design Notes

Middleware is the combined digital artefact/deliverable media result for my three subjects this semester:

  • DIGC302 – Digital Communication Practice: Final Project
  • BCM311 – Advanced Seminar in Media and Communication
  • DIGC330 – Digital Asia

I designed Middleware initially with only the most basic, vague idea to start with. As a final project for three subjects, it has been constructed to intersect those subjects together.

DIGC302 and BCM311 have a similar central theme as subjects that aim to prepare me for the post-university part of my life, focusing on products and projects that can be expanded and developed outside of university into working spaces.

DIGC330 is much more of a cultural focus, with the idea of enabling me, as a student, to come to the best understanding of the world around me.

The simplest first principles I started with were to make a cyberpunk card game. Then, with that in mind I looked for ways to connect it to BCM311’s themes and DIGC330’s – there is no greater rhyme or reason for why I did things in this order, it’s just that that was the order my classes came in.

When I had those ideas central, I sat down and worked out what I wanted to make, making a bullet point list after the second week. This is what I had:

  • Card Game
  • Cyberpunk
  • Junk
  • Characters
  • Debt
  • Representation
  • “Middle Spaces”

I later refined and expanded on this list as follows:

Card Game – I knew I wanted to make a card game, if I had the opportunity. Card games fascinate me in no small part because they have so much interesting design space. Cards can hold information in memory like a computer program, they can randomise, and they have space for colour and art, they can make information hidden or public, and they are very small, compared to other large-physicality based games.

Cyberpunk – While this was a very broad theme, I was able to refine it a little, moving on to themes like power differentials and impersonal opposition. This idea both helped to inform the colour scheme and visuals of the game, as well as the

Junk – While I had a defining aesthetic, in the form of cyberpunk, Ted brought my attention to the idea of junk as important to Gibson’s cyberpunk setting. The notion was that over time, things either broke down and became less useful, or things that were broken were repurposed. This became part of the decision to make the game a deck builder game, where the players slowly accumulate cards that wane in usefuleness as the game advances.

Debt – In BCM311 we discussed the nature of debt in a university setting, which put debt squarely in my mind. It also serves as a mechanical way to represent the slowness of the Middleware experience; this isn’t a single fight, where people are attacking one another, in a very tangible short-term event. The nature of the cycling of cards, shuffling up and resetting the deck multiple times makes the game feel more day-to-day. The threat is less criminal and more existential.

Representation – I prefer to create media that is not limited to representing white, male, cisgendered characters. As a white, male, cisgender creator this means I have to be careful to not fetishise or exoticise people without those traits. I bore this in mind as I was creating the characters that would form the spine of the Middleware experience.

‘Middle People’ – This was the crux of all three subjects’ discussions. In the context of Digital Asia, one idea that kept occurring to me was the vast cultural difference we, as Australians have between ourselves and Asia, and how that distance is mostly of our own design. There’s cultural distance between us and America, too, which we actively try to ignore – effectively, Australia is a nation ‘stuck’ in the middle between Asia (which could be argued it belogns) and the United States (which has, economically and culturally, been part of its colonisation). This ‘middle space’ idea is part of how the characters were designed.

There are other design elements – without being exhaustive, there was a strong influence to make the game portable, approachable, and reasonably fast to play. The existence of the servers were important, too, where I wanted to make part of this game oppositional, where nobody needed to ‘be the enemy’ – instead, the system was, itself, mute and rote. It didn’t target people, it instead reacted, in a very headless and cruel way.

Blog Post Links

I blogged through much of the design process. Here are links to each individual blog post along the way – the posts stopped after the task was mostly just making cards.

  1. https://unicorndispatches.wordpress.com/2015/08/04/week-2-digc302-idea-boxing/
  2. https://unicorndispatches.wordpress.com/2015/08/05/the-values-of-values/
  3. https://unicorndispatches.wordpress.com/2015/08/11/design-thoughts-first-principles/
  4. https://unicorndispatches.wordpress.com/2015/08/18/card-game-design-junk-and-theme/
  5. https://unicorndispatches.wordpress.com/2015/08/19/the-dumped-draft/
  6. https://unicorndispatches.wordpress.com/2015/08/25/design-notes-definites/
  7. https://unicorndispatches.wordpress.com/2015/08/26/debt/
  8. https://unicorndispatches.wordpress.com/2015/09/01/middlespace-structuring-the-space/
  9. https://unicorndispatches.wordpress.com/2015/09/02/card-game-representation/
  10. https://unicorndispatches.wordpress.com/2015/09/03/do-you-know-hatsune-miku/
  11. https://unicorndispatches.wordpress.com/2015/09/09/middleware-characters-1/
  12. https://unicorndispatches.wordpress.com/2015/09/10/middleware-characters-2/
  13. https://unicorndispatches.wordpress.com/2015/09/08/types-of-tricks-of-the-trade/
  14. https://unicorndispatches.wordpress.com/2015/09/15/visual-language/
  15. https://unicorndispatches.wordpress.com/2015/09/27/digc330-assignment-2-reflection-on-character-description/

The Game Delivered

What was delivered was a minimal viable product. In order to make sure the game could work, a lot of important elements were set aside, and any areas redundancy could be used to compensate were taken. The following changes were made to simplify the product:

  • Characters all had unified goals, and goal cards didn’t do anything
  • All halt cards were unified into one simple card that explained what it was and did
  • No cards had art
  • Characters were simplified mechanically, with most of them being limited in what they couldn’t do
  • Character-specific rare cards were not made
    • These were challenging to design without an existing feel for good, robust balance in the existing buy deck. Given they might not show up in a game with the characters in them, they had to be powerful enough to be interesting but not overwhelming. Note that character-specific rares would be cards that that character cannot have, reinforcing the idea of people cooperating.

Alpha Test Notes

There’s a lot that’s come out in alpha testing over the past few weeks. These are just some shorthand notes for things that can be addressed in the game overall. Changes can be divided into three basic  types: Things to fix, where a decision was made and it has proven to be a bad one, things to expand, where testing has revealed a larger design area to build into, and things to undo, where things have been shown to lack for some reason and should be replaced.

Fix

  • Accessibility: The server cards resistances are indistinguishable for colour-blind people.
  • Costs: Too many of the costs are concentrated and it’s very hard to make early game purchases if one or two early cards are expensive. Paying Upkeep was meant to address this but the mechanics can be refined somehow. Perhaps paying upkeep can allow for influencing the Buy deck.
  • The Server power ‘Each player gains 10 debt’ almost always completely wipes Haruka Em out. It’s too much, too consistently and the player can almost never address it.
  • The last flipped Server card is meaningless.
  • F10R4 should have a much lower upkeep and a high debt ceiling.
  • Haruka’s card says they can’t use ‘Social’ cards, which don’t exist. It should read ‘Manipulate.’
  • The flavour text on all cards should be a different font to the main one
  • Card costs should be highlighted like the card titles, and they should all be the same font and size.

Expand

  • Goal Cards: Goals represent early-game junk and keep the opening hands from being uniform, but they should also be interesting to play and help the later game when challenge increases.
  • Character Powers: Characters need some reason to want to play a character, rather than a reason to not. Right now in beta, characters are defined by what they can’t do, not by what they can do.
  • Tracking Debt: Right now, debt tracking is fiddly and requires paper and pen, like life totals in other games. Consider a mechanism to make this easier.
  • The Assault Cards were designed first. They’re a little mechanically thin therefore, with a simple overarching mechanic. Also they weren’t tested against servers in play, and the question of ‘junking goal cards’ was never answered in testing.
  • More Characters. The system is expandable, I need to at least make it clear there’s some reason to feel there can be more, different characters with other mechanics.
  • More Server Cards. Every new mechanic designed for the servers translates to four new cards. Maybe some server cards with hybrid colour resistance?

Redo

  • The Infiltrate rares are both useful for every deck and there is no reason to not take them if they come up and you can afford them. This differs from the rares in the other types, which reward you for investing in their colour.
  • Some of the names are lacking in thematic connection to what they’re doing.
  • Server resistances are perhaps a bit confusing, and given the way the ‘flip’ effect only happens once, perhaps it could also be used as a static effect.
  • Server resistances should be covered by each new card, so the resistance colour should be in the text box, not in the symbol.
  • Server resistances being 1 is pointless. Server card values should start at 2 and the raids should be balanced as if the servers can be strength 6 to 18.
  • Basically, the server cards work but need to be redone because they can work much better.

Importance of Thematics

First of all, a lot of the ideas of taking games seriously and considering them as academic works has been the fruit of a number of writers and presenters on the subject in long, slow conversations that play out over twitter, youtube, and through their own creative works – particularly the works of Katelyn Gadd, Chris Franklin, Leigh Alexander, and Andi McClure. Also underpinning these has been readings from Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, a 1955 text on the importance of play as a cultural phenomenon.

Thematics are the thing that hold games together. In a lot of games there’s a complex system of systems underpinning all the elements, and understanding them without the metaphor of thematics can be very confusing. Games let us take complex systems, imbue them with thematics, and in so doing, give us reason to care about them and understand them.

First things first, the impersonal servers were an important part of the game. I needed to make sure that the opposition for players felt inhuman and unreasonable. There really is no option to argue or reason with the servers, while players are suggested to cooperate. This way the server can’t be reasoned with, cementing the feeling that players are working in a world that is against them.

Another element is that the players have to regularly pay upkeep, or incur debt. The notion is meant to make sure that player struggle with the choice to buy things, but recognise that playing by the rules of the system make it almost impossible to actually fix your life. The debt system is deliberately unfair, and represents a time limit on the game, like a timer in a videogame.

One other thing that I like with the thematic is the way this group of marginalised people, even those representing authority structures or some idea of commercial success, work together. This flows from my own experience, where queer and marginalised communities band together in order to ensure that whatever axes of oppression they have in common can be diminished. In this game, the player characters don’t have a lot in common, but they are all marginalised, and they are all inclined to work together.


 

References

  • Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-element in Culture. Boston: Beacon, 1955. Print.