Friday, March 27, 2009

When is too much errata too much?

I recently accidentally started a bit of a flame war. Yes, it really was accidentally. Okay, it was very short and all the flames were directed at me. I discovered that I am a whiney little runt. I just asked a very simple question over on Consimworld in the folder established for discussion of Compass Games' "Spartacus." The header of the folder listed (at the time) ten items of errata or clarification and the game has only been in the public arena for a few weeks. My question was "Doesn't that seem like a lot of errata/clarifications for a brand new game?"

The developer, Neil Randall, responded that most errata and clarifications occur within the first few months after a game is released. Players are quick to discover rules that are not as clear as the design team felt they were. Rules Lawyers quickly discover loopholes large enough to drive an army through. Fortunately for "Spartacus" most of the eleven items (as this is being written, anyway) are actually just clarification statements, though there are a few actual rule changes.

I've never gone through the huge process of publishing a game and making certain that the rules make sense to all involved so one day I may delete my comments here, should I ever go through the pains of creating a game. However, it just seems that some design teams seem destined to design games that are so overwrought with errors, design flaws, and incomprehensible rules that they have to be completely rewritten. Design Teams are extremely defensive about such problems. Of course, the designer and developer and probably the majority of the playtest team understand the rules.

One example of such a mess was GMT's version of "Blackbeard", designed by Richard Berg and developed by Neil Randall. A discussion ensued in the GMT folder of Consimworld. Someone mentioned that the game was terrible and full of incomprehensible rules. Other players claimed that one mechanic seemed broken. Richard Berg chimed in that indeed that particular exploitation was problematic, but that it was being fixed in the new edition. I asked how much errata was there for the game and the designer Neil Randall immediately declared that there was absolutely no errata for "Blackbeard." This was very confusing because Mr. Berg was defending the game as playable while it seemed that a number of people who had actually played the game either agreed OR disagreed strongly. The major complaint that those who disagreed was over the huge volumns of errata and clarifications that had been made. Yet, here was the developer stating boldly that the game had absolutely no errata. Eventually, the muddy waters were cleared when we discovered that the game and its rules had been entirely rewritten and the latest version had yet to receive any errata. Come on-- if you have to rewrite a rules set based on a number of flubs, flaws, goofs, and lack of clarity it is not really 100% honest to state that a game has no errata.

Once again, though, should we throw stones at these guys? I have difficulty getting our church bulletin done without mistakes. I've had some embarrassing misprints, too. Listing wrong days or times for events causes confusion. I would prefer not to mention (but I will for your enjoyment) the times the bulletin called for us to sing hymns like "What a fiend we Have in Jesus" and "O For a Thousand Tongues to Sin." Documents which describe game mechanics, concepts, and ideas must be so much more difficult to put together.

However, then we tell ourselves, "but these guys are professionals, they should know how to do it correctly." Gamers either forget or don't understand that most designers are hobby gamers who have real life jobs. The designer of "1960: The making of the President" and "Twilight Struggle," (two very successful games with multiple printings) hasn't resigned from his day job as an aide to a Congressman. Most designers have to work at another job in order to support their hobby. Even the prolific Richard Berg mentioned that he was obtaining a "reverse mortgage" on his house. There is very little, if any, money to be earned from designing games. Should we pour our complaints onto these hobbyists turned designers?

Flip the coin over and examine the other side. You just shelled out $50-$60 for a new game and the rules are so difficult you put the game on the shelf and give up. It is a rotten feeling to buy a game that seems unplayable. The publishers owe it to the gamers to get the game right. Gamers will tolerate silly spelling errors on the map. They should not mind if a comma or two get misplaced in the rules. But the game should be playable out of the box because that what the $50 or $60 was for. If you buy a DVD player that doesn't play DVD's then there should be some sort of warranty. If a game is so badly written that the rules have to be completely rewritten then the publisher obviously did not fulfill his end of the contract-- providing the buyer with an actual game.

The old Avalon Hill was afflicted with the errata bug. Of course, this was before my time, but I've seen copies of "The General" that offered errata on games. I've heard of those who used to send their rules questions via snail mail and wait for weeks or months for a response. There are some who would argue that in today's internet entrenched world we should not worry about errata or clarifications too much because they are instantly provided. While I am grateful for the internet, I don't think it should become a crutch to prop up a poorly written set of rules. Developers, designers, and publishers have become lazy. They justify the publication of games that are not quite fully playtested because they can publish a fix for their errors very quickly on the internet.

Designers defend themselves in Consimworld forums everyday. In the case of "Blackbeard" Richard Berg pointed out that many players purchased the first GMT edition, understood the game, enjoyed it, and recommended it to their friends. The fact that there was enough interest in a second GMT printing is evidence in itself that the game wasn't as bad as some folks felt. Some developers declare that a lot of the errata is really nothing more than clarifications and seem to feel as if clarifications don't count because no two people read a sentence the same way. Yet a number of players were disappointed in the game because of confusing rules and exploitable mechanics.

Sometimes, they are right. It is often very difficult to communicate via the written word. After all, you probably didn't understand very much of what I have written here, have you?

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