The Problem of Stickiness
I have watched a great game slide slowly into oblivion for about a decade now.
(I bet some of you thought this would be a different kind of problem, didn’t you? Cheeky!)
I won’t name the game – if you know me, you know which one it is, and if you don’t know and it’s really bugging you, feel free to drop me a line privately. Anyway, the specific game is pretty much beside the point. Because this is a post about the obligation of a creator to their creation, and in particular about an obligation you don’t hear about much: the obligation to put it down, slide it over to your audience, and walk away.
First, some background. When I started attending my first boffer LARP back in October of 2000, I had already been doing live-action role-playing for seven years. I went to the game on the advice of some friends I’d just met at a local Changeling game, just my brother and I driving to the wilds of south Jersey, excited and not knowing quite what to expect. Almost all of the people I knew were actually NPCing for the weekend, which meant my brother and I were largely on our own, playing new characters in a group of total strangers. We were poorly dressed, poorly equipped, ran around like lunatics and generally had a blast. We quickly pulled in pretty much all of our gamer friends, and after a year or two of playing we started getting involved in writing events and even serving on staff. It was, for about five years, the single biggest unifying factor among my friends – just about everybody went at least now and then.
As a game designer, let me tell you, it was a wonder. The rules were some of the simplest and most efficient I’d ever seen, particularly in the field of boffer LARP, which is notoriously prone to bloated and complicated systems. They blended roleplaying with mechanics, stressed teamwork, encouraged player interaction and made combat dangerous and exciting. When I arrived, the third version of the rulebook had just been released, a rough if lovingly crafted book. I was assured that the “final draft” was just around the corner, and sure enough in another year or two the game’s creator, an intermittently charismatic man with a Faustian knack for getting people to believe in his game, fired everyone up with photo shoots, professional printing and a big release at GenCon. We giggled at some of the mistakes that crept in, editing or not, but we were sure this was it – the beautifully simple game we loved was done!
Oh, if only.
You see, the game’s creator had a problem, one that I should have spotted in those years of rulebook versions, errata every other weekend and the like. It’s simple – he couldn’t let go of his creation. Despite the fact that the game was a success, as boffer LARPs go at least, despite the fact that the players loved the simplicity of the rules, despite the fact that it seemed an ideal time to expand, the creator kept on tinkering. A game that was known for its wonderful simplicity became more complicated; a game that had begun with a lot of flavor become bland as its rules were generalized. Our group left, most after the sort of drama blow-up that LARPs are infamous for, the rest ebbing away over the next couple of years. I still check in with the game every now and then, out of morbid curiosity more than anything else, and the game is pretty much totally unrecognizable (and still changing). The simplicity is long gone, along with a lot of what made it unique and evocative. There a lot more tables and charts, and it has spawned a half-dozen spin-off settings that are simply different skins placed over the rules system.
Sure, you can create a much wider range of characters now… but why would you want to?
One of the hardest things about many creative activities in general and game design in particular is knowing when to walk away, to accept it for what it is and move on to your next project. Projects are sticky – you don’t want to let them go, and that’s the problem. There will always be something you want to fix – a loophole you missed, a rule you wish you had written differently, you name it. But you have to learn when you’re fixing things, and when you’re changing things. It can be easy to get so caught up on the details that you forget what you’re doing to the big picture.With that game, it eventually became clear that he wanted to create something like a universal LARP framework, a game system you could adapt to almost any setting – the GURPS of LARP, if you will. That’s a fine goal. But why gut your existing fantasy game to do it? You’ve already got players that are loyal, enjoy the system, and – most importantly – it works. Shelve the first system, and create another to do what you want. By trying to change one over to the other, you wind up making a bit of a mess of both instead of creating two great things.
I made this argument to a friend of mine once, and his response was to shrug and say “so the guy pulled a George Lucas?” I guess that’s a comparison a lot of geeks would agree with, Lucas now being infamous for tinkering with the original Star Wars films and changing so many beloved elements with his various editions. The game I knew locally, though, that one stuck with me a lot more. Maybe it was because I saw it happen up close, I don’t know, but it taught me a valuable lesson: no matter how much your game sticks with you, you have to let it go, let it be what it is, what other people enjoy.