The Gassy Knoll: The Angry Birds RPG Theory

A few weeks ago I ran across an article going in depth explaining why the game Angry Birds has been so popular and successful from a human factors standpoint (“Why Angry Birds is so successful and popular: a cognitive teardown of the user experience” by Charles L. Mauro on the Pulse>UX Blog). Author Charles Mauro breaks down his theories into several conceptual chunks discussing how the user interface for the game and the deceptively simple game mechanics offer an experience that engages the user by slowing key events, using sound, and adding mysteries to keep players curious and hooked.

Though tabletop roleplaying games are very different from games like Angry Birds played on mobile devices, I began to wonder what criteria might apply to them as well…

To be engaging at some level, a RPG must employ mechanisms that players and game masters are already familiar with. Many traditional RPGs use chance and randomization to provide impartial results. This aids the trust factor, ensuring that the GM and players at least have the perception of a level playing field. The randomization factor is often handled by rolling dice or selecting cards from a shuffled deck. The consistent mechanism can then be depended on to provide a range of random results.

Once that mechanism is in place, other bits come into play such as action and combat resolution, character growth, gaining loot to aid in the PCs quest, and so on. But without that mechanical base under the covers, there’s little way of ensuring fair and equal game play.

The rules themselves can then become as simple or complex as the game designer needs or wants them to be. For example, Hero is complex due to its very modular design which can be adapted for any genre, setting, or power level. Rolemaster was designed to model the randomness and brutish nature of combat. Dungeons & Dragons was initially based on a wargame played with miniatures… The list goes forever.

The conventions and structures in these games were used because they were familiar to the game creators. And though I think the pendulum is swinging away from complex rules systems again with the rise of games like Savage Worlds (which cleverly uses cards and dice) and Warrior, Rogue & Mage, with its rules-light, classless paradigm.

But what makes one game more attractive than another?

One factor for me is definitely rule complexity. If I have to buy a 250 page book for every game I want to play, you can typically forget it. These days I look for games with short books or quickstarts to get me going quickly. Like Angry Birds I want the rules to be simple enough to jump right in and I can learn more as I go.

Another factor is the genre of the game itself. Though even I have played many universal rules systems over the years (GURPS, Hero, Palladium/Rifts, and even my own Moebius Adventures), the ones that have stuck with me have been tailored to a particular genre. I wouldn’t want to play a fantasy version of Battletech/MechWarrior or Cyberpunk 2020 for example. Instead, I prefer games that work genre into the system, embracing simple mechanics with solid examples that work in that environment. Sure, driving a wagon can be done with the same skill resolution system as driving a car, but they’re similar only in the broadest sense and different qualities should be brought in to drive that home…

The last major factor for me is look and feel. If you create the best game in the world and present it to me in a single-column, text-dense layout, I’m going to get lost quickly and drop it like a hot potato. A little graphic design can go a long way with borders, columns, boxes, artwork, and white space used to make it easy to read and entertaining at the same time. One well placed piece of art can really drive home the point the game designers were trying to make that 1000 words sometimes can’t convey.

Does this gnoll have all the answers? Hell no. But I think it’s a useful exercise to take a step back from time to time and compare apples and oranges to see what kinds of games really get us excited as gamers. Who knows? Maybe Angry Birds the RPG will become the next big hit!

Got a beef with the Gassy Gnoll? Drop him a line at gassy(at)gameknightreviews(dot)com.

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